Blood Red Chapter 10


Mark tried to reassure himself that Lauren would be all right alone in the hospital with Deanna.

It was amazing. She not only seemed to believe him, she seemed to trust him.

Of course, she didn't know the full truth. And that weighed heavily on him. But for now, the point was that he had to find Stephan's lair-and destroy Stephan. Taking Heidi-who was acting like a total airhead right now-out to dinner was not his idea of getting anywhere. But he hadn't wanted the two women out alone. Not at night.

He decided to take Heidi to the club where Big Jim Dixon played. Sean Canady had assured him that Big Jim was not only savvy but knew exactly how to defend himself and others.

Canady had also assured him that every man watching over Deanna in the hospital was aware of the existence of creatures beyond most people's awareness. Mark knew had to have some faith in others, though his fury and determination were so great that he was still convinced he was the one who would find and destroy Stephan Delanskiy.

But he needed to help to defend the innocents who might otherwise be slain while he sought his prey. Stephan was powerful. He had survived many attempts to destroy him. He could hypnotize and mesmerize. And he healed quickly. Whatever wounds were inflicted upon him, it seemed he needed only minutes or at most hours to regain his full strength.

Mark nodded to Big Jim when he and Heidi entered the jazz joint. Big Jim nodded in return. It was a good feeling.

’’I'm not really hungry,’’ Heidi said, setting down her menu a few minutes later.

’’You need to eat something.’’

’’I need to be with Deanna,’’ she countered.

She didn't seem at all like the same person who had been so sweetly flirtatious earlier, while still extolling the virtues of her fiance.

’’Look, Lauren is with Deanna. We'll get back soon enough. Lauren will be worried about you if you don't get some food into you and take a few deep breaths,’’ Mark told her.

’’Fine. I'll have a hamburger,’’ she said. And when the waitress appeared a few seconds later, she followed through and ordered one. ’’I like my meat rare,’’ she said. ’’Almost raw. Do you understand? Bleeding. Mooing.’’

Mark frowned. She was being demanding and rude, once again totally unlike the woman he had met earlier

He ordered a hamburger for himself, also rare, and politely thanked their waitress after she took his order. Then he leaned back in his chair, staring at Heidi.

’’Quit looking at me,’’ she said irritably.

’’He got to you, didn't he?’’ Mark inquired in a low tone.

She flushed, shaking her head. She seemed confused. ’’I-I don't know what you're talking about.’’

He leaned toward her. ’’Yes, you do. Think about it. Think hard. Somehow, he got in. Was it Stephan himself, or someone else?’’

Color suffused her cheeks. ’’I don't know what you're talking about.’’

’’Was he tall and dark-darker than me? And did he just appear to you? Did you leave the hospital? Or do those windows open? Did you invite him into the hospital room?’’

’’No!’’ Heidi protested, and shook her head, but tears were glistening in her eyes. ’’There was no one there. You're crazy.’’

He reached across the table, moving like lightning, cradling her head with his hand and twisting her chin up so he could get a look at her neck before she could stop him.

It was just as he had feared.

The puncture marks were there. Tiny, almost indiscernible. She hadn't been drained;she had merely been tainted.

It was a tease. A taunt. Stephan was sending a message loud and clear to tell Mark that he could get to anyone he wanted to.

And that, in the end, he would have Lauren.

Heidi jerked away from him. ’’Don't you touch me,’’ she whispered to him. ’’Don't...’’ She stared at him, then bit her lip.

’’It's not your fault,’’ he said softly. ’’Give me your cell phone.’’

’’It was just a dream!’’ she told him.

’’No, it was real. Give me your cell phone, I have to call Lauren, and I don't have her cell number.’’

Heidi's eyes seemed to be glued to his. She fumbled in her purse for her phone, never looking away from him.

The waitress came with their hamburgers just as he found Lauren's number on Heidi's phone and called.

’’That's not really rare enough,’’ Heidi said, her attention finally drawn from him.

’’They're just fine,’’ Mark said firmly. ’’We'll take the check, too, please.’’

Lauren's phone rang and rang until her voicemail came on. She must have turned off her phone in the hospital, he thought.

’’Forget dinner. We have to go,’’ Mark said curtly.

’’But-’’

’’Now!’’

It was gone. The entire vision was gone in a split second, as if it had never been.

Lauren blinked, staring at the window. There was nothing there. Nothing at all.

Why the hell hadn't she thought to draw the drapes the moment she had come in? Shadows could play tricks. She must have seen lights coming from somewhere, the shadow of a cloud across the moon. It could have been anything.

’’Deanna,’’ she said, looking back to her friend.

Deanna's eyes were closed. She was sleeping as if she had never awakened.

’’Deanna?’’ Lauren repeated.

She even shook her friend gently. But Deanna's eyes didn't open again.

’’Hey, what's going on?’’

Lauren swung around. Stacey Lacroix and Bobby Munro were there. Bobby was out of uniform, and Stacey was carrying a vase of flowers. She frowned as she stared at Lauren.

Lauren rose. ’’She was awake for a minute. She spoke.’’

They both stared at her, their eyes betraying the fact that they believed she had only thought Deanna had opened her eyes because she so badly wanted it to happen.

’’Well, good, maybe that means she'll wake up again soon,’’ Bobby said with forced cheer.

Stacey gave him a quick glance, then smiled at Lauren, too. Even standing still, she seemed like a whirlwind of energy and competence. ’’Where's Mark?’’ she asked.

’’He took Heidi out for some dinner.’’

’’Well, then, it's good that we stopped by,’’ Bobby said.

’’Yes.’’ Where the hell were you a few minutes ago?Lauren wondered. You could have told me if there were really eyes in the night, or if I'm creating horrors in my mind because there just aren't enough real ones out there.

’’Too bad we weren't a little earlier. You could have gone too,’’ Stacey told her. ’’But we're here now, and we've got some time. If you want,. You can take a little walk down the hall, stretch, get yourself a soda or some coffee or something,’’ she offered.

Lauren hesitated. She trusted these people. Sean Canady, a police lieutenant, had sent her to Montresse House. So if she couldn't trust Bobby Munro, another policeman, and Stacey Lacroix, the manager of Montresse House-assistant to a good vampire, she reminded herself dryly-who could she trust?

’’You're sure you don't mind?’’ she asked. They were talking about a few minutes, she knew. Not the amount of time she intended to take.

But it seemed extraordinarily important that she find the fortune-teller. And she was only going to find her by night.

There are vampires out there, she reminded herself.

But she was aware. And armed. And she would be exceedingly careful.

’’I really could use a walk, something to drink. In fact, I think I'll run down to the cafeteria and grab a snack, if that's all right,’’ she said.

’’Of course,’’ Bobby told her, and smiled. He was thin but wiry, all muscle. He had a lopsided smile and seemed like a good guy, and just right for Stacey.

’’You go right ahead,’’ Stacey said. ’’Bobby and I know the officer on duty in the hall-he's a great guy. And we'd never leave your friend. You can trust us, you know.’’

I have to trust you, she thought.

’’Thanks. I'll be back soon.’’

’’Take your time,’’ Bobby said.

She nodded, offered him a weak smile, and tried not to go tearing out of the room.

Luckily, a taxi was available right outside the hospital, and Lauren immediately flagged him over.

The driver had a Southern accent and spoke English perfectly. He assured her that traffic was quiet, and he gave her a card so she could give him a ring if she needed a ride back later.

He made his way through the traffic easily enough and was able to let her off on Decatur Street, right at Jackson Square.

She walked around.

And around.

Back where they had originally met Susan the fortune-teller, Lauren saw that there was an empty table with tarot cards laid out.

No one was there.

There was no tent set up, either. Maybe Susan hadn't had a chance to replace her crystal ball.

A young artist was seated near the empty table, sketching idly. She had an easel displaying a number of very good caricatures, but when Lauren approached her, she saw that the woman was working on a realistic sketch of a man.

He was a man like any other, except that...he wasn't. He wore stylish jeans and a casual tailored shirt, but even in the sketch, his eyes were...strange, arresting.

And frightening.

She couldn't pinpoint it, but the impression was there. Even in a sketch.

’’Excuse me,’’ Lauren said to the artist, who jumped, gasping.

’’Sorry, didn't mean to startle you,’’ Lauren said.

The girl flipped her sketchbook closed.

’’You saw that man tonight?’’ Lauren asked.

The girl nodded. It seemed she was trying to collect herself. ’’Would you like a caricature? I'm really good. Just twenty dollars.’’

’’I'm sorry, I don't have time, but...’’ Lauren dug in her purse for a twenty. Once she had been just like this girl, just trying to make enough to get through school. ’’Here.... When did you see that man?’’

The girl looked confused. ’’I...’’ She laughed suddenly and admitted, ’’I don't know.’’

’’Think. Please?’’

The young woman tried, then shook her head. ’’I don't know. I honestly don't know.’’

’’Has anything...strange happened here tonight?’’ Lauren asked.

The girl smiled with real amusement then. ’’Come on, this is New Orleans.’’

’’Please. I could really use some help,’’ Lauren told her.

’’I don't...I don't know. I've kind of been in a fog all night.’’

’’What about the woman next to you?’’ Lauren asked.

The artist frowned. ’’What woman next to me?’’

’’Over there. That table. It belongs to a fortune-teller named Susan.’’

’’Oh, of course,’’

’’Please, have you seen her? Do you know where she is?’’

’’I saw her go into the church earlier. But it's closed now, of course.’’

’’Thank you.’’

Lauren walked quickly toward the church, which indeed looked closed. But at the entrance to the alley that ran beside the church, she saw a sign. She walked over to it, frowning, scanning the announcements.

Choir practice

! And it was going on right now.

She hurried to the front door. It was locked. She raced down the alley and found a side door, and managed to slip in. She wasn't sure where she was, but quickly wandering along the hall brought her to the side of the main altar. In a small chapel off to the far side, someone was indeed leading choir practice. The sound of the hymn they were singing was beautiful.

She looked toward the rear of the church, searching the pews.

And there was her fortune-teller, just sitting there, staring at the altar.

Lauren made her way down the aisle, then hurried in to take a seat beside Susan.

’’What have you done to us?’’ she demanded in a heated whisper.

Susan turned to her. ’’This is a house of God. You will not bring venom in here.’’

’’What have you done?’’ Lauren repeated.

’’Me? You have brought danger and a curse on me, young woman. You shouldn't have come here. And you should have left when I told you to go.’’

Lauren inhaled, wondering just how absurd she was going to sound. ’’I know there are vampires here. But it isn't my fault. You knew it, and you didn't warn us.’’

’’I told you to leave,’’ Susan said softly. ’’But you and your friends refused to believe. You think you are safe in your ignorance, but I will suffer for your stubborness and arrogance. You bring danger to me just by being here.’’

’’Susan, my friend is in a coma. But she came out of it for two minutes and mentioned you. What do you know? Why did she talk about you?’’

Susan turned on her, her eyes narrowed. ’’Perhaps because she realized that you had all put me in danger. I am afraid to work. How will I live? I have become a target. Because of you.’’

’’What are you talking about?’’

Susan stared at her. Her face seemed impassive, but her voice was harsh. ’’Stephan. Stephan Delanskiy.’’

Lauren was so taken by surprise that she just stared.

Maybe this was all an elaborate ruse. Susan was in on it with Mark. And apparently the cops were in on it, too.

If she hadn't seen the wings in the sky, the shadows that took form and came after her, fangs bared...

Susan looked toward the altar again. ’’There will always be evil. There will always be those who combat it. There will always be those, like me, who see it, sense it, are touched by it...but do not have the power to best it.’’ She stared at Lauren again, though she seemed to be talking to herself. ’’Evil has come before, and it will come again. Such is the way of the world.’’ Her eyes cleared and met Lauren's. ’’But you have ruined me.’’

’’You're the one who had the crystal ball!’’

’’And through it, he saw you.’’

’’But he was here already,’’ Lauren argued angrily, afraid.

’’Yes. But now he will stay. Until he has you.’’

’’This is ridiculous,’’ Lauren said harshly.

’’Is it? Is it ridiculous when a mother wakes in the night and knows that her child has died? Is it ridiculous when a husband suddenly knows his wife is in danger, when a twin knows her other half needs help? Right now you need help.’’

’’I have help,’’ Lauren whispered.

Susan ignored her and went on. ’’Forget what you think of as real, what you see as sanity. Forget it all-if you want to live. I am alive now only because I know that what we don't see is real, that what we don't admit can be true. If you want to survive, realize that for your friends, and for yourself.’’

’’I'm not your enemy,’’ Lauren protested. ’’You brought this down on me. You and your crystal ball.’’

’’He would have found you,’’ Susan said. ’’The crystal only let you know he had done so. You should have run while you had the chance.’’ She shrugged. ’’He might have followed you, but the danger would have been gone from my life.’’

Lauren felt oddly as if she had been slapped, the woman spoke so coldly, with such a dismissive determination. But then Susan turned back to her. ’’You have help, you say? Take that help and cherish it. You cannot win on your own. Even an army could not help you win if that army did not see and believe. For your friends? Keep them safe if you can.’’ She stood up, clearly anxious to get away. She pulled a folded paper from one pocket of her long skirt and thrust it toward Lauren. ’’I do not know everything, but I research what clues come my way. Read that.. It's a copy of a newspaper article, and it may help you. But don't read it now. Get away from here. Go back to those who will help you. If you care anything for others, keep away from me. And when you leave here, bathe yourself in holy water.’’

Susan hurried up the aisle.

Lauren rose, more confused than ever. ’’Susan, wait!’’

But Susan was gone.

Lauren hurried from the pew herself. In the aisle, she genuflected and crossed herself. And she didn't forget to dab herself liberally with holy water before she made her way back to the side aisle and out into the alley.

It was quiet.

Dark.

Shadowed.

Surely there were people nearby, she told herself. It was early, especially by New Orleans standards. Carriages would be clip-clopping late into the night and musicians playing on street corners.

But the narrow alley seemed ancient, shrouded in a strange sense of decaying elegance. There was a breeze, and it whispered in a strangely cool tongue.

She heard something in the air.

Like a flock of birds overhead.

Or bats.

She looked up into the darkness of the sky.

Once upon a time she would have thought only that the night was merely alive with creatures who rested in the eaves by day and hunted by night.

But now she knew better. Now she knew...

That she was their prey.

Bobby Munro was in the lobby when Mark and Heidi returned to the hospital. He looked distraught. Downright ill.

’’What's wrong?’’ Mark asked anxiously.

’’Lauren's missing. She's not in the hospital. I've looked everywhere,’’ Bobby told him.

Tension tightened Mark's muscles, and he clenched his jaw tightly, fighting against fury and fear. ’’I'll look for her. You need to get back to Deanna. Heidi, go with Bobby.’’

Heidi looked at him, a slow smile curving her lips as she rolled a strand of blond hair around her finger. A look of purely wicked lasciviousness crossed her face.

’’He's coming, you know. He's coming back. He's going to kill you.’’

’’Do something with her, will you?’’ Mark said to Bobby in frustration. Something was clearly wrong with Heidi, but he had no time to worry about her right now.

’’I'll do my best,’’ Bobby told him, but Mark had already turned and left the hospital.

He left his car in the lot. It was imperative that he find Lauren immediately, and in the crowded Quarter, he would do better on foot.

Leticia Lockwood finally signed off on her last patient. She bade goodnight to her fellow nurses and headed out to the parking lot. She was probably the last person on her shift to leave, but she didn't mind. She felt herself blessed to have gotten through nursing school. She loved her work and was happy to do what she could to help others-and get paid for it.

She smiled as she headed for her car. Aunt Judy didn't know it yet, but they were headed to church tonight. She thought her aunt would be pleased. Thanks to her, Leticia had managed to keep her goal in mind and ignore many a temptation. Like Tyrone Martin, back when they were in high school. Tyrone had been about the best looking guy ever to run down a football field. But he had gotten into drugs. Then shoplifting. And now he was doing six years in the state pen. While others had fallen for him, she had not. She had refused his cocaine, his pot-and his determination to get her into bed, and she was glad of it. He had several illegitimate kids, and their mothers were all on welfare. Aunt Judy's forceful resolve had made her stick to her books. Her aunt had never threatened her with violence, but Leticia had wanted to please her aunt;so she'd tried hard to do the right things.

But tonight...

She'd promised the new deacon at their Baptist church that she would be there. She was going for the singing. And for Pete Rosman, the man she'd been looking for all her life. And he liked her;she knew it. They were both people who liked to do things. They were proactive and believed that if everybody just put some elbow grease into life, things would be better for everyone.

As she headed for her car, she saw a man. He was bent over by a tree, and he didn't look well. She frowned, instantly concerned.

’’Are you all right?’’ she called.

He put out a hand and waved weakly at her. She hurried over to him. He was handsome, she decided. Too pale, obviously sick.

She took his hand. ’’Come on...emergency is right over there. I'll help you.’’

’’No, no....’’ He flashed her an engaging smile. ’’I'm so sorry, I'm all right. I just need to sit down for a minute. I was out with friends, and I guess I had too much to drink.’’

’’It's a familiar story around here,’’ she murmured.

’’You disapprove, I'm sorry. I'm okay. You can...I'll be all right. I'm going back to my hotel to crash for a while. You're a nice lady, though. Pretty, too,’’ he assured her.

She blushed.

’’I'll be all right,’’ he said. But he was leaning on her heavily. And those eyes of his!

She chastised herself. She was going to help him. And not because he had nice eyes and had paid her a compliment, she assured herself. She was going to help him because he needed help. It would only take her a few minutes out of her way to drop him at his hotel.

’’Come on. I'll give you a ride home.’’

’’You're too kind.’’

’’Come on.’’

He held onto her, accepting her aid. She got him over to her car and into the passenger seat. When she sat next to him, ready to put her key in the ignition, he suddenly looked out at the sky and cursed.

She frowned. He was staring toward the Cathedral, so she looked in that direction, too. It looked like there was a swarm of birds overhead.

In fact, even at this distance, it seemed that she could hear their fluttering wings.

’’It's just birds, maybe bats,’’ she said, intending to reassure him. But in fact he didn't look nervous. He suddenly looked like a great cat that had realized its prey was trapped nearby.

He looked at her. There was something very odd about him. ’’Sorry, I'm out of time,’’ he told her.

’’What are you talking about?’’ she asked, disturbed.

She saw his eyes again and opened her mouth to scream.

Too late.

The bats were coming. Circling overhead, then dipping low, their wings brushing her with just a touch...a terrifying touch.

Yet...

They didn't settle, didn't land on her, though she knew it would be a struggle to make it the short distance back to the Square.

Where there would be people. Lots of people. Police cars, maybe even mounted officers. Help.

She judged her distance.

It would be closer to walk back to the church. Sanctuary.

She clung to the wall, sliding back to the door as quickly as she could.

She tried it.

Locked. Now it was locked. She banged at it. But no one came.

She was armed, she reminded herself.

Yeah, right. With a water pistol.

She drew it out of her bag and she took aim at the next winged creature that came her way. She held the child's toy with both hands.

And she fired.

The thing fell to the ground with a horrible hissing sound, and there was a small explosion, a puff of smoke in the air, and then...

A pile of dust. As she stared at it, she noticed that there was a figure at the back of the alley. Standing there. Watching her.

The other bats hovered above her, so she ignored the m ysterious figure in favor of the immediate danger and began to shoot. She shot and shot, ignoring the shrill hissing and rain of dust, until she suddenly realized that she was going to run out of ’’ammo.’’

She stopped.

The figure in the alley was still watching her.

And then she heard the low sound of chilling laughter.

Mark combed Bourbon Street first, going from bar to bar. He moved as fast as he could, his sense of fear growing greater with every second.

He'd put a call through to Canady, and he knew the cop would be out looking for her, and that he had patrolmen on the hunt, as well. He'd done everything he could conceivably do, but even so, he felt as if he were being torn apart, as if he had failed again.

He didn't know where the hell she was.

He would find her. By God, he would find her. She was strong. Even in danger, she would be strong. She believed. She knew the truth.

Exiting a bar, he plowed straight into another man.

Jonas.

’’You,’’ he breathed, and reached into his pocket;he couldn't miss this time.

’’Sweet God in Heaven, man, will you just listen to me?’’ Jonas pleaded.

’’I have an entire vial of holy water,’’ Mark informed him quietly. ’’And if you make one wrong move, I will destroy you.’’

He spoke quietly, because there were people all around them. From inside, he could hear the band playing and a waitress shouting something to the bartender.

As he and Jonas stood there glaring at each other, a woman flashed a smile and asked them to move aside just a smidge-she wanted to get into the club.

Mark caught the younger man's arm and pulled him out to the street.

’’I am not the one you're looking for!’’ Jonas said earnestly.

’’Where the hell is Lauren?’’

’’Lauren?’’ Jonas demanded with a frown. ’’Deanna's the one in the hospital Would you just listen to me for a minute? I'm not evil.’’

Evil? Maybe not, Mark thought, but he was certainly a vampire.

Mark drew out the vial of holy water. The other man stared straight at him without flinching. ’’Hit me if you have to, but I'm telling you the truth. I want to help you. I...I care about Deanna. I've never met anyone like her. She's...she's...’’ A flicker of fury lit his eyes. ’’She's too fine to become the plaything of a vicious bastard like...him.’’

’’No one here knows you,’’ Mark told him curtly. ’’The cops here know that vampires exist-some of them, anyway. But no one knows you.’’

Jonas lifted his hand and pulled a chain out from beneath his T-shirt.

He was wearing a cross.

’’Could I wear this if I were associated with that monster, Stephan?’’ he demanded.

Mark arched a brow.

’’Look, I am new to the area,’’ Jonas went on. ’’I've been in New York City for a long time. No one there notices anyone else, there are blood banks up the kazoo...I came here to work the music scene. That's all. Not to hurt anyone.’’ He offered a rueful smile. ’’Hell, there are enough rats around, you know?’’

’’Make sure you stay out of my way,’’ Mark warned him.

’’I can help you. I want to help you. Look, I haven't been...what I am now for very long, and I'm not very powerful, but I'd give my...existence to help Deanna. I'll do anything. Anything.’’

’’Just stay out of my way,’’ Mark repeated.

He started walking away, his anxiety for Lauren rising to the surface again. He wasn't going to kill Jonas-though letting him live might be a serious mistake. But he didn't have the time right now to figure out the best way to handle the situiation. He had to find Lauren.

’’How the hell can I prove myself to you?’’ Jonas called after him.

Mark kept going without answering.

He moved with long strides, eager to quit Bourbon Street. It felt as if he were screaming on the inside.

He had to find her.

Now.

The figure at the end of the alley continued to stand there, staring.

She stood dead still and stared back.

She was almost out of holy water, and she was trying desperately to remember everything that Mark had said. This was Stephan, she was certain. Mark had said he was very strong. She could hit him with what remained of the holy water, and undoubtedly she would hurt him, but would it be enough? It might only serve to enrage him and make him all the more certain that the time to sink his teeth into her throat was now....

’’I am not Katya!’’ she shouted.

’’You are the one I will have,’’ he said softly in return.

It seemed as if the entire world had gone still. As if time itself had stopped. She was alone in the alley with him, wrapped in darkness and shadows.

’’No,’’ she said softly. ’’You don't know what it is to really have anyone. You will never have me. And in your brutality and your cruelty, you will find your own destruction.’’

He started walking toward her.

How far would her water pistol shoot?

’’Put down that weapon. And take off your cross. Because I will have you. I will have you in the way I want to have you, and that's all that will matter. When I tire of you, well...maybe you'll be lucky and that won't happen.’’

She took a step backwards.

He seemed closer than he had been.

As if he had floated.

But now he was walking casually toward her, as if they were old acquaintances, just chatting after a chance meeting on the street.

She sensed, more than felt, a sudden fluttering.

A shadow in the air. Darkness...

Like wings.

Lauren realized that Stephan was frowning.

Then, suddenly, another man materialized in front of her, standing between her and Stephan.

It was Jonas, the young, dark-haired stranger who had so captivated Deanna.

’’Leave her alone,’’ Jonas said.

Stephan paused, then almost immediately started laughing. ’’And just what are you going to do about it?’’

Jonas turned slightly toward Lauren. ’’Run!’’ he yelled to her.

She realized that Stephan probably had the power to tear the young man apart. Young man? He was a nothing but creature himself;she had just seen him create substance from shadow.

’’Don't fight him,’’ she said vehemently.

’’Go!’’ he urged.

Stephan was coming swiftly closer, floating....

He reached Jonas, lifted a hand. It was a casual movement, but his touch sent Jonas flying across the alley, slamming hard against the wall of the church.

Then Stephan was walking toward her again.

And she found she was having difficulty moving. She could see his eyes. They were dark, and they were light. They were blackness, a Stygian pit, and they gleamed with something like fire. She wanted to move, but...

She forced herself to blink, then she aimed the water pistol.

’’You won't shoot,’’ he said.

But she did.

His hissed grew into a bellow of fury as the spray hit him, but he didn't stop. Jonas recovered, straightening from where he had slumped to the ground. He raced back, leaping on the older vampire's back.

’’Go, Lauren! Don't let him into your mind!’’

She nodded, backing away. Stephan was already reaching around and plucking Jonas from his back as if he were no more than a pesky mosquito.

’’Let him go!’’ she commanded, firing her water pistol again.

When the spray hit Stephan, he once again roared in fury.

She squeezed the plastic trigger again. Nothing happened.

The gun was empty.

’’Go!’’ Jonas told her.

Stephan said something she couldn't understand, but it felt as if she was hit by a cold and paralyzing blast of air. Her feet seemed leaden. She opened her mouth to scream as Stephan pounded Jonas to the pavement. Then he kicked him aside like trash and started toward Lauren again with determined strides.

But justbefore he reached her, before his fetid breath could was over her, there was a whirlwind of energy in the street. Suddenly Stephan was hit by an enormous streak of energy and power.

Lauren couldn't begin to imagine the source, and then she saw that it was a man.

Mark.

He threw himself at Stephan in an attack so violent that he seemed to be the very wrath of God himself. His onslaught caught the vampire off balance. For a second Stephan teetered, and then the two of them became a melee of flying limbs and went down, rolling across the stone pavement of the alleyway together, a black mass of fury and rage.

At that moment the sky came to life again, wings appearing from the darkness, then fading back into it again.

Something swept down toward Lauren, and she heard a shout. Mark's voice. He was talking to Jonas.

’’Get her out of here! Get her the hell out of here!’’

Jonas moved like a flash of lightning. She felt his arms around her. ’’Run! Help me, Lauren, damn it. Run!’’

They ran.

Shadows took form in their wake, as if wings and darkness combined to become tremendous hands, reaching out....

They ran....

And ran.

And burst out onto the Square and joined the sea of humanity once again. People were strolling around, talking, laughing. A guitarist played a country song, a respectable imitation of Johnny Cash.

In the light, in the throng, in the music and chatter and life of the square, Lauren stopped running at last. Jonas was still holding her as she turned back and looked down the alley.

All she saw was...

Nothing.

No wings, no shadows. No sign of Stephan.

And no sign, either, of Mark.

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