Blood Red Chapter 14


Mark was certain the morgue was empty when he arrived, but as he stood at the door of the seemingly deserted facility, it opened, and Sean Canady was standing there in the dark.

’’Took you long enough,’’ he said, then turned and walked away, calling over his shoulder, ’’Come in. Quickly.’’

Mark followed, his eyes adjusting quickly to the darkness. There were security lights, but they offered dim illumination at best.

’’No night attendant?’’ Mark asked.

’’He's...here.’’

’’Oh?’’

’’I knocked him out,’’ Sean said impatiently. ’’I had to.’’

’’Really?’’

’’Come see.’’

’’I thought you wanted me down here because of that body the cops brought in today?’’ Mark asked with a frown.

’’Yes.’’

’’I destroyed her today.’’

’’She should have been destroyed,’’ Sean said.

’’What? If she's coming back, we need to talk to her. We need to know where she's been sleeping, who-’’

’’I'm sorry, but it's too late now.’’

’’What the hell are you talking about?’’

’’Come on back. You'll see.’’

He did see. The morgue attendant was out cold on the floor, and the corpse...

She was half-covered in flesh again, looking like a Hollywood movie prop. Her eyes were open but unseeing. Her mouth was distorted in a snarl.

Her fangs were glistening.

And she had a literal death grip on a stake that was protruding from her chest.

’’You certainly did take care of her,’’ Mark said, looking at Canady.

’’I had to. I know you were hoping she could be brought back to help us, but it's not going to happen. And after what I saw here tonight, we've got to be very careful.’’ He indicated the morgue attendant on the floor. ’’She nearly had him. There seem to be some fairly new recruits in Stephan's flock. We can't count on dust to dust to get rid of them. If you make a kill, be damn sure you cut the head off. I'll take care of any explanations.’’

’’Like Stephan, when he throws his refuse into the Mississippi,’’ Mark said bitterly.

’’You've got to make sure they're down for good,’’ Sean said firmly. ’’I have a community of the living to protect. I know you need information, but you can't get it at any risk to others.’’

Mark looked down at the fallen morgue attendant. Poor guy looked well and truly out. ’’How hard did you hit him?’’ he asked Canady.

’’He'll come to soon enough.’’

’’How much did he see?’’

Canady shrugged. ’’Too much. But with the bump on his head, he won't say anything. Who the hell would believe him?’’

’’She should begin to rot again quickly,’’ Mark said.

’’I want her more than rotted,’’ Canady said curtly.

’’If she were to come back...’’

’’Mark, we can't take chances like that. She almost put paid to Bernie. I barely got to her in time.’’

Mark winced. ’’All right. What next?’’ he asked Canady.

Sean handed him a bone saw. Mark nodded and got to work. Decapitation was not an easy process, he thought halfway through.

When they were done, he asked Canady, ’’How the hell are you going to explain this?’’

’’I'm not. I'm going to pray she rots again by morning.’’

’’What about the morgue attendant?’’

’’I'm going to prop him back at his desk. With any luck, he's going to think he's worked a few hours too many alone with the dead at night.’’

’’I guess you know what you're doing.’’

Canady shrugged. ’’It's the best I can think of, anyway. When I leave here, I'm heading back to the hospital to check on things there. Where will you be? Back at Montresse House?’’

Mark shook his head. ’’No. I can't just sit around and wait. I have to find Stephan's lair. He's using guerilla tactics, going after different people, trying to keep us so busy and scattered that he'll eventually succeed in getting to Lauren. I have to find him first.’’

’’What do you think he'll do next?’’ Canady asked.

’’I don't know, but I hope to God I can find him before he does it,’’ Mark replied.

Deanna remained very weak, and she was also fretful, worried about Jonas.

Lauren was worried about him, too, though not, she suspected, for quite the same reason.

Stacey managed to cook up a delicious soup that Deanna was able to keep down, so at least her strength was improving, even if the danger was still out there.

But that night, with Stacey, Bobby and Big Jim around, it seemed to Lauren that the siutuation was on the upswing, at the very least.

Deanna actually made it to the shower by herself, with one of them waiting, ready to hand her a towel and support her back to the bed.

Big Jim suggested they gather in Deanna's room for a game of Trivial Pursuit, and though she felt listless about the idea at first, Lauren was pleased to see how eagerly her friends agreed. Still, though she tried, she couldn't get into the game herself;she felt strangely restless and unnerved. Finally she excused herself and went downstairs to brew a pot of tea.

As the tea steeped, she suddenly remembered the paper Susan had given her, which she'd forgotten in the welter of events. She raced upstairs to her own room and found it in the pocket of the jeans she had worn the day before. Eagerly, she sat down on the bed to read.

It was a newspaper article, written ten years earlier about strange events in Louisiana history.

Lauren was perplexed. The event in question dated back to 1870. A plantation owner who had survived the ravages of the ’’War of Northern Aggression’’ had been returned to his home for burial after traveling abroad to attend the wedding of his son in Kiev, where he had apparently gone berserk and used a bow and arrow to kill the bride and several of the guests.

On the day of his funeral, the house-a beautiful, graceful home on the river-had gone up in flames. The shell had remained for years. As of the article date, the ruins were still abandoned, and the property had reverted to the state.

Lauren read the article over and over again, unable to puzzle out why Susan had given it to her.

Perplexed, she refolded the sheet of paper and tossed it on the nightstand.

Mark spent over two hours just driving around.

He had been certain at first that Stephan would have chosen a place along Plantation Row for his refuge, but he had apparently been wrong, because he didn't see anything suspicious the entire time

He headed back to the hospital, anxious to see how Leticia was doing. All seemed quiet when he reached her room.

For whatever good it might do, Sean had stationed an officer on duty outside the door. And Judith Lockwood was right where he had left her, the knitting project in her hands beginning to look more like a sweater.

He noticed there were more crosses in the room. Several of them-all wooden-lined the window frame.

’’Hello, Ms. Lockwood,’’ he said quietly.

She looked up calmly and nodded at him. ’’He's been here already, been here and gone.’’

’’He?’’ he murmured.

She returned her gaze to her knitting. ’’Folks can poke fun at some of the old beliefs, but you know, way back in the old days, in the jungles and deserts, folks knew. They knew about good, and they knew about evil. My girl here, she just happened into the way of evil. But she's a good girl. And I don't intend to lose her to any spawn of Satan. I was ready.’’ She smiled. ’’Well, I have to admit, I'm a little bit afraid to be leaving this place myself now, but I was ready. He showed up at that window. And I gave it to him good. You see that silver cross there? I blazed my light on it just as soon as I saw the golden orbs of his eyes at the glass.’’ She chuckled softly. ’’He was gone, lickety split. Yessir, I think we're going to be fine.’’

Mark walked over to Judy and took her hands. ’’Good for you. You're saving her life, you know. But you're right;you mustn't leave here. Not at all. Not until it's...safe.’’

’’Not until you've killed the bastard, huh?’’ she asked.

He nodded. ’’He needed Leticia because she's a nurse, but she's also a very beautiful young woman. You've kept her from him. She's not the one he's after, but he'll hurt you, hurt you badly, if he can, because he doesn't like people denying him anything. You understand, don't you?’’

She stared at him. ’’Oh, yes, young man. I understand. I understand much more than you imagine I do. And I won't be leaving. Do you see stupid in this old body? I think not!’’

Mark had to smile. ’’I do not see stupid,’’ he agreed.

’’Get out there, then. Get out there and stop the monster that did this to my girl.’’

’’Yes, ma'am,’’ he told her, and left.

Outside, he swore. If only he knew where the hell the bastard was going to strike next.

Deanna still didn't have much strength, though she was doing much better than Lauren would have expected. By midnight, however, she was sleeping again, apparently peacefully.

In her chair, Heidi yawned.

’’You all go on to bed now,’’ Big Jim said, looking around the room. ’’I'll take first watch. Bobby can spell me in a few hours. And Stacey is always up by six.’’

’’I can watch Deanna,’’ Lauren said. ’’You're already doing enough, giving up your job to stay here with us.’’

’’You listen to me, Lauren. I know what I'm up against You go get some sleep. You won't be any good if you're overtired..’’

Heidi stood. ’’I'm sorry, but I really am exhausted.’’ She grinned. ’’It's very tiring, convincing your fiance that you don't want to sleep with the entire roster of the L. A. Rams. Big Jim, bless you. I'm going to bed.’’

’’Okay,. I guess I'll get some sleep, too,’’ Lauren said.

’’We'll do it as Big Jim calls it,’’ Bobby said, rising as well, and holding out a hand to Stacey. ’’Come on, kid.’’

They all filed out of Deanna's room.

’’Maybe I should bunk in with you,’’ Lauren told Heidi.

’’No, thank you.’’

’’But-’’

’’Lauren, the room is protected. And I have a feeling someone will come home to you eventually. And though I think it's great you're getting some at last, I don't want to be around for it,’’ she said, laughing.

’’All right,’’ Lauren agreed. ’’I'm right next door. If you get nervous, if anything so much as goes bump in the night...’’

’’I'll scream my head off so you can come save me,’’ Heidi swore, then gave Lauren a warm and reassuring hug. ’’I swear, I almost lost Barry, and there's no way I'll let that happen, especially now that I know what I'm up against. I'll be ready for anything that comes my way, I promise.’’

Lauren watched Heidi disappear into her room, then headed for her own.

She took a long shower, with plenty of hot water, before dressing in a soft knit nightgown and curling up in bed.

The silence of the house seemed to weigh on her, and she realized that she was listening. Waiting.

Listening for the sound of wings, fluttering in the night. Waiting in fear.

It was exactly what he wanted, she thought. He had been at the hospital. He had wanted to prove that he could go anywhere, that he could injure them when they didn't even know they were vulnerable. And that he did want her.

Why?

Because she looked like Katie?

It was all so ridiculous.

She got up and decided to read the article Susan had given her one more time. But she still didn't understand what the seer had been trying to tell her. It was a sad story, and it had all happened in 1870, shortly after the Civil War had torn the nation apart.

She noticed that several sources were cited at the bottom of the article. She wondered if she could find any of them on the computer, or if she would have to go to the library. It was almost two AM, and though she couldn't sleep, she was exhausted. She decided to see what she could find in the morning.

She lay down again to try to get some sleep.

Although it seemed futile, Mark decided to try barhopping again.

Big Jim wasn't playing, he quickly discovered. But he stayed for a beer, and listened to the remainder of the group.

He was still bothered by everything that had happened with ’’Nefertiti.’’ She had wanted him to destroy her. He was certain she hadn't seized the child because she really intended to take his life;rather, she had wanted death and had forced his hand. But he was still frustrated, thinking that she might have known something that could have helped him.

He straightened suddenly and looked around. Nothing in the bar looked different, but something had changed.

He sipped his beer and carefully observed those around him. Three college boys were sitting at one of the high tables near the bar. There were eight people on the dance floor. They weren't dancing as couples, just moving to the music.

At the table next to him a young woman was seated with an older man. He homed in on their conversation;it was a father and daughter. She was going to Tulane, and he was down visiting.

The bar was sparsely populated. Several people appeared to be alone. There were two attractive women in their early fifties enjoying conversation, Margaritas and the music.

A couple at the far end. The man had sandy hair, and was broad-shouldered, tall and dressed in a black tailored shirt and jeans. He looked like he might be the quarterback on his college team. The girl was pretty. She looked sweet, radiant and innocent. Also very young. She had dark eyes and long brown hair, and wore a tube top and a short plaid mini-skirt. They had their heads bowed toward one another.

Suddenly the girl laughed a little too loudly, probably the result of too much to drink.

He saw the man set money on the bar and whisper to her.

She smiled and flushed.

They started out the door together, hand in hand.

Mark followed.

There was a loud boom, like a burst of thunder.

Lauren started up, alarmed, awakened from a deep sleep.

The French doors had crashed inward. The drapes, white and billowing, were floating like ethereal clouds.

A flash of lightning brightened the darkness.

And he was there. Stephan. He was tall and impossibly forbidding. He wore a black cape that billowed behind him, dark against the white of the drapes.

’’Ask me in. Ask me to come for you,’’ he said.

’’No. I'll never ask you in.’’

’’I know you read the article,’’ he said softly.

’’What does that matter?’’ she demanded sharply.

’’I know the fortune-teller,’’ he assured her.

’’Susan...’’ she murmured, fear leaping into her heart. Susan had been terrified. She had known about Stephan.

’’I haven't hurt her-yet. But I know she gave you the article.’’

’’It says nothing about you,’’ she told him.

’’You didn't read it properly,’’ he said, and smiled, the gleaming gold of his eyes offering something that was almost tendern. ’’You want to come with me. You know you do. You know what I can offer. With me, you'll have everything. You need to turn away from him. He is the evil one.’’

’’No.’’

’’He's a liar, you know.’’

’’No.’’

Then he began to laugh, that awful laughter she had first heard issuing from the crystal ball.

’’I'm coming for you.... I'm here for you.’’

The couple seemed to be heading for one of the large hotels on Canal Street.

At first it was easy enough to keep his distance and still keep them in sight, but the closer they got to Canal, the more difficult it was for Mark to keep track of them in the crowd without being spotted. Eventually he saw them enter the lobby of one of the hotels, and he had no choice but to follow closely. He walked to the desk and asked the clerk on duty for directions to the Square. As he pretended to listen to what the man was telling him, he watched the elevator as they entered it, glad that no one else got in withj them, and saw where it stopped. The fourth floor.

Mark pretended to head nonchalantly away, then made for the stairs. Taking the steps two at a time, he reached the fourth floor hallway and swore softly. It was a big hotel and there was no indication what room they were in.

There was nothing to do but tread lightly and listen.

A television blared from one room;rock music sounded from another. He kept moving. Then he heard it again.

That too-loud laughter. At least she was still alive and apparently well. Even enjoying herself, apparently.

He found the room from which the sound had come and there paused. He heard the low hum of teasing voices. More laughter.

And then a gasp.

Followed by a scream.

Mark burst into the room.

For a moment he paused, frowning.

The guy was on the floor, the girl straddling him, pressing his arms down. For a moment Mark was about to back out of the room in embarrassment. How the hell could he have been so wrong?

Then saw that he hadn't been wrong after all. She laughed again, and in the soft light of the room, her fangs glowed. Dripped saliva...

She stared at Mark as the man beneath her began to let out a terrified mewling sound.

Mark swore, tore across the room and tackled her, forcing her off the man on the floor. She was strong and tough. She fought hard, trying to grapple him to the ground as she had the other man, while, he tried to reach into his pocket for his weapon.

She shoved, and he crashed into the wall, but quickly recovered. She let out a screech of fury and threw herself at him.

He was dimly aware of it when the guy rose, staggered to his feet and went stumbling from the room. Then Mark looked into the gleaming, maddened eyes of his mini-skirted opponent as she started snapping at him, trying to sink her fangs into any part of his flesh that she could.

He threw her off and nearly reached the holy water in the pistol in his pocket, but she came at him again.

He ducked, but not quickly enough, and they both crashed down together. The water pistol went flying. He swore.

She was on top of him, but he gritted his teeth, flexed his muscles and threw her off. She landed on the water pistol. With a howl and a hiss, she leapt up, staring at it, then then him.

She started to laugh again. ’’You are no match for Stephan,’’ she told him. ’’You...with your silly weapons. He will have you. He will torment you. He will take all that you love. You think you can hurt him? You think you have hurt him? Never. He knows how to move in the world, how to feed. He knows how to take what he wants. You are nothing! Nothing at all. In the end, you will be nothing but blood. Blood, blood and more blood. There will be a spill of blood, a rain of blood. It will be just like a blood wedding,’’ she cackled.

’’Your woman will die. And then she will live. Not like Katie. Katie is dead. Katie is blood. Just a memory of blood. But he will have her, and we who have served him will reign.’’

Enough.

He made it to his feet and practically flew across the room.

He hit her with such force that they slammed against the window together and shattered it. Then they were falling...

Falling into the night, into the abyss.

No, no, no! It wasn't happening. She had to fight it.

At last, with a jerk and gasp, Lauren managed to shake herself awake. In a raw panic, she stared around the room.

The windows were closed.

The drapes lay still.

There was no man standing inside her room.

She inhaled, exhaled, and realized she had tangled the covers in her nightmare. She was sweat slicked and clammy, and her heart was thundering.

’’It was a dream,’’ she told herself aloud.

Just a dream.

But she remained afraid. She rose and turned on the light, then went into the bathroom and turned on the light there, before splashing her face with cold water.

She breathed deeply again, staring at her face in the mirror. She looked like a wild woman. She smoothed down her hair, washed her face a second time for good measure, and looked again. The wide-eyed panic was at last fading from her eyes.

But a sense of somehow being violated stayed with her.

She left her room and went down the hall. Heidi's door was ajar. She peeked in. Heidi was curled beneath the covers, hugging the extra pillow. She appeared to be sleeping peacefully.

Lauren continued down the hallway. The door to Lauren's room was open. Big Jim was no longer on duty, but Bobby was there, reading a gun manual.

He looked up. ’’Hey,’’ he said softly.

’’Hey. Is everything all right?’’

’’Fine. Deanna woke up hungry again. She seems to be doing just fine.’’

’’Thank God.’’

’’Are you sure you're all right?’’ Bobby asked her.

’’Yes. I just can't sleep is all.’’ She walked closer to Deanna. Her friend's color was much better. She was breathing deeply, and seemed to be sleeping peacefully. No dreams were plaguing her.

’’I told you. She's fine,’’ Bobby said.

’’I believe you,’’ she said, smiling as she turned and stretched. She was still tired, but there was no way in hell she was going to go back to sleep. ’’Hey, why don't you go to bed? You have to go to work in the morning, I assume.’’

He grinned. ’’Actually, I'm assigned to the house right now.’’

’’I can't sleep, Bobby. You might as well get some rest.’’

’’Are you sure?’’

’’I promise you, I'm not going to be able to go back to sleep.’’

’’All right, then. The house is protected. And if anything happens-and I do mean anything at all-just let out a good loud scream. One of us will be with you in two seconds. Okay? And don't worry about a false alarm. It's better to get us up for nothing than to second guess your fear and end up dead-or worse.’’

She thought about telling him about her dream. No. She didn't want anyone to worry about her when there was so much going on. Besides, talking about it would make it seem more real in her own mind, and she wasn't about to make Stephan any more real than he already was.

When she saw Mark again, she would tell him. Then again, maybe she wouldn't. Maybe, by day, she could get to a library. She would ask someone to go with her, find some excuse.

Was she actually distrusting Mark? she asked herself. Because of something that Stephan had said to her in a dream?

No, she assured herself, thought it was true that she didn't really know him.

Yes, she did, she argued with herself.

’’Are you sure you're all right?’’ Bobby asked.

’’Absolutely. Honestly. Go-get some rest.’’

He nodded and left her.

For a few moments she moved restlessly around the room. But then she decided to read for a while. Bobby's manual didn't seem very interesting, but there were all kinds of things to choose from in the bookcase. She chose one on pirates in New Orleans and took a seat in Bobby's chair. She glanced at Deanna again and was glad to see that her friend was still just fine.

With a sigh, she began to read, then gave herself a shake and realized she wasn't comprehending anything she was reading. She was falling asleep.

Great. She had to stay awake.

She turned on the television that sat on top of the dresser, glad that every room had a TV and cable. Robin Hood: Men in Tights was on. A comedy. Good.

She looked at Deanna again to make sure the television wasn't disturbing her. It wasn't. She sat down again. Between the book and the television, she should manage to stay awake.

And she did. But when the movie ended and Bram Stoker's Dracula came on she rose quickly and switched the channel to the news.

But the news was about the fact that police up and down the Mississippi River were still looking for the murderer responsible for the deaths of at least three women, and she quickly changed the channel again and found an old episode of Lassie. Big surprise, she thought. Timmy was in trouble again.

She tried to read, but once again her lids grew heavy.

I will stay awake, she vowed to herself. I will.

Down, down, down...

They crashed to the pavement, and he landed on top, but despite that, she was apparently unhurt and only laughed again.

Mark looked up and down the street. Far away, down near Harrah's, there seemed to be activity. In the other direction, the T-shirt shop next to the hotel apparently never closed. Light was streaming from the door. But there was no one immediately near them.

She started clawing for his throat again, so he put his fingers around hers.

She fought. She struggled.

He used all his strength. All the tactics he had learned. She was unbelievably strong, but finally he felt the snap. He'd broken her neck. She was still looking up at him, but now her head was tilted at a gruesome angle.

’’Blood, blood, blood!’’ she repeated.

There was some discarded construction material lying out by the curb. He kept a grip on her and rolled toward it.

She saw his intent and tried futilely to straighten her head.

Too late. He found a ragged two by four and thrust it into her chest as hard as he could.

From somewhere nearby, a woman screamed in horror. ’’Murder!’’

The girl beneath Mark stared up at him, her eyes growing wide. Her deep gasp sounded like a balloon being deflated. Blood gurgled from her lips as she began to turn black...

And exploded into soot beneath him.

Covered with it, blackened, Mark rose. He heard the wail of a police cruiser in the distance, and he turned and ran, the shadows.

He found one, aware of footsteps pounding behind him as he disappeared into the darkness.

He couldn't be accused of anything, because she had been old. Very old. There would be no murder charge because there would be no body....

He headed down the street. In the distance, he could still hear the woman screaming about murder.

She could hear a rapping.

No, it was a pounding.

It broke into the deep and dreamless sleep into which Lauren had fallen, curled into the comfortable chair.

She opened her eyes.

Yes, it was pounding. And it was coming from...

The front door.

Her eyes flew open, and she immediately looked over to the bed.

Empty!

Lauren sprang to her feet and raced into the hall, then down the stairs. Deanna was standing at the front door. And it was open.

Hair disheveled, looking barely awake, Stacey-with Bobby at her heels-nearly crashed into Lauren.

’’Deanna!’’ Lauren cried.

As she spoke, a man stumbled in. He was wearing jeans and a Killers T-shirt.

He was covered in blood, and he crashed to the floor in the entryway.

Jonas.

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