Blood Red Chapter 8



Lauren signed the registration cards for the inn and left feeling filled with energy, determined to find the fortune-teller at Jackson Square.

But she realized, after walking around the square several times, that apparently many of the people who worked the area didn't show up until later, probably not until dusk, at least.

More upsettingly, she had the feeling she was being followed, even though it was broad daylight. The sun was strong, the air warm, and there was a slight breeze off the river. The world seemed calm, normal.

But it wasn't.

She returned to the hospital, thinking that Heidi was probably ready to wring her neck.

But Heidi wasn't irate in the least.

She was sleeping in the chair by the bed when Lauren arrived. She didn't wake up until Lauren touched her, and then she flushed and stretched, and seemed disoriented.

’’Hey, how's she doing? Has anyone said anything?’’

Heidi seemed a little flustered when she replied. ’’Um...yes, actually. The last nurse who came in here said that her vital signs are strong and that she's doing well. She hasn't come to yet, but she seems to be resting comfortably and I guess the doctors are pleased with her progress.’’

’’I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be gone so long.’’

’’Were you gone long?’’ Heidi asked.

’’Yes. But the new place is gorgeous.’’

’’So was the old place,’’ Heidi pointed out.

’’You'll love Montresse House. I promise,’’ Lauren assured her.

Heidi shrugged. ’’It's what you wanted.’’

’’Thanks for humoring me.’’

’’Some slave you are.’’

’’Sorry.’’

Heidi frowned for a moment. ’’There's still a cop in the hall, right?’’

’’Yes, of course.’’

’’Think we could go to lunch together? We missed breakfast, and I'm starving.’’

Lauren hesitated. It was broad daylight, she reminded herself. Deanna was in a hospital, with a cop right outside her door. ’’Want to grab something in the hospital cafeteria?’’

’’Not really, but okay.’’

In the hallway, Lauren saw that the officer on duty was about fifty and appeared to be of French or Hispanic descent. He had a trustworthy face, a little haggard, but gentle and reassuring. When she told him they were going to grab a bite to eat together, he said, ’’Good idea. I'll sit inside with your friend. You take your time.’’

Lauren thanked him, noticing a heavy gold chain around his neck. ’’Crucifix?’’ she asked.

’’Uh-yeah, actually.’’ He drew it out from beneath his collar. ’’A gift from my missus. I always wear it. I like yours, too.’’

’’So you are wearing Mark's cross,’’ Heidi teased.

Lauren offered her a vague smile and thanked the officer.

In the cafeteria, they discovered that the hospital offered a pretty decent salad bar. They filled their plates, then sat down at a table.

’’I really am sorry that your party has gone south. Mostly, I'm worried about Deanna, though,’’ Lauren said.

’’Oh, don't worry. I think that not being able to party hearty has been a good thing. I've had time to think about what I'm doing,’’ Heidi said lightly.

’’What do you mean?’’ Lauren asked.

Heidi shrugged. ’’I've been rethinking the entire marriage thing,’’ she said.

Lauren, with a small wedge of lettuce halfway to her lips, froze. ’’What?’’ she said in astonishment.

’’Marriage. I don't know if I'm ready.’’

’’Heidi, your wedding is two weeks away.’’

’’I know.’’ Heidi, unconcerned, adjusted her napkin on her lap.

’’Heidi, you love Barry.’’

’’Well, of course, I love him.’’

’’Then...?’’

’’I've just been thinking. I'm not sure I'm ready.’’

’’But you were so certain.’’

’’There you go. Things change.’’

’’Have you talked to him? Did you two get into an argument or something?’’ Lauren asked, perplexed.

’’No, I wouldn't dream of fighting with him over the phone, and anyway, we don't have fights. Disagreements now and then, but no big fights.’’

’’Have you talked to him at all?’’

’’Not since yesterday.’’

’’Then what...?’’

’’I'm just not sure I'm really ready for marriage.’’ She flushed, staring at Lauren. ’’If you must know, it's occurred to me that I'm not entirely positive I'm ready for a se*ually monogamous life.’’

Lauren just stared at her blankly. ’’Uh...well....’’

’’We don't need to discuss it,’’ Heidi snapped.

’’Okay.’’

Heidi set her fork down. ’’I'm not really hungry after all. Since you're here now, I think I'll head out. I'll go and make sure that we didn't leave anything at the old place and check out the new one. Okay?’’

Heidi wasn't really asking;she was leaving. That was that.

’’Okay.’’

Lauren wasn't sure that Heidi even heard her. She was already walking out.

Lauren discovered that she wasn't hungry herself and felt a sudden urge to get back to Deanna as quickly as possible.

She rushed back upstairs.

The friendly officer was still in the room. He blushed when she caught him reading Heidi's bridal magazine.

’’Some really pretty pictures in there,’’ he said. ’’My wife and I eloped to Vegas. Sometimes I think I cheated her out of a real wedding.’’

’’How long have you been married?’’

’’Twenty-six years.’’

’’I guess she was happy with what she got, then,’’ Lauren assured him.

He smiled. A happy man. Feeling that maybe the world would be all right, Lauren took a seat at the foot of Deanna's bed.

The officer remained with her, and she never even noticed herself dozing off, but. the next she knew, he was nudging her and telling her that the shift was changing.

She woke, blinked and realized it was twilight.

Lauren wasn't sure if she would really have left Heidi alone at the hospital all night in her determination to find the fortune teller, but luckily she didn't have to worry about it, because Heidi reappeared in time

Lauren's head was still reeling.

Deanna was holding her own, but Heidi's behavior was beyond peculiar. She had returned to the hospital in a very pleasant if somewhat...fey mood. Not a word Lauren usually used, but it was one that seemed to describe the way Heidi was acting. She had mentioned avoiding several calls from Barry, and said blithely that Deanna was going to be just fine and she would be happy as a little lark to stay with her and watch television or read for the evening. When Lauren promised that she would return as soon as she could, Heidi told her not to worry.

Lauren couldn't help but feel a little uneasy about leaving Heidi in charge, so to speak, then told herself that she was being ridiculous. There was a cop on constant duty at the door, and he was certainly capable of protecting both women if there should be any need.

After leaving the hospital, Lauren found the nicest taxi driver in the world and asked him to take her to Montresse House, because she'd decided to pick up a light jacket before hitting Jackson Square. The driver was a native of the area and sympathized with her for having a friend being in the hospital. Healso believed in the occult and told her that she should buy herself some serious mojo to protest against evil.

She thanked him while privately thinking there was no need to get carried away.

Unfortunately, as nice as he was, he wasn't able to get her all the way to Montresse House or even to Bourbon Street. There had been an accident, and the streets were blocked off. He apologized profusely but suggested she get out a few blocks away and walk.

Lauren did, though she wasn't sure exactly where she was. There were people around, and there were lights, and she wasn't particularly worried. As she walked, she kept going over everything they'd done since arriving in the city.

A chill seemed to wrap itself around her suddenly, and she stopped walking. Frowning, she paused, looking around. The street was lined with old residences, with only a few storefronts here and there, and most of them were cafes that only served by day. Magnificent houses sat behind high walls, with bushes lining the sidewalk for added privacy,, and it seemed they had all begun to rustle.

She quickened her pace.

Then she stopped.

Someone had stepped out from behind a high brick wall. Someone who was tall and formed a dark silhouette against the night.

She could hear the distant sound of traffic.

Laughter.

Even music.

She stood dead still. A breeze wafted by, strangely cool. She became aware that she was alone on the street. Doors and gates were closed. She wasn't far from Bourbon Street, but she might as well have been at the end of the world.

The silhouette wasn't moving, exactly, or at least not in any way she could identify, yet it seemed to be coming closer to her, almost floating just inches above the sidewalk.

Then, suddenly, the dark figure became a man, just a man. Tall, mid-thirties, athletic build, dark. He wore black jeans, a black polo shirt and a casual jacket. His hair seemed to be darker than the night.

And his eyes...

They might have been black, too.

Except there seemed to be some kind of a glowing golden light in them.

She told herself to move, to quicken her pace;to hurry past the man, then realized for the first time she was standing dead still.

And he was smiling as he approached her.

She could hear the blare of a horn from somewhere, but it might as well have come from another world. It was followed by the plaintive sound of a jazz chord.

But it was so far away.

’’Hello.’’

Her heart seemed shudder as he spoke. She didn't understand why she wasn't moving. It was as if her limbs had become paralyzed. She was furious with herself. What the hell was the matter with her?

His voice was deep and smooth. She wondered if that was part of what held her so firmly where she was. But she had been standing still, just waiting, before he had spoken.

She didn't reply. She just stared at him, and he stared back.

’’I've been looking for you,’’ he said.

He'd been looking for her?

Ridiculous. She'd never seen him before. Or had she? At that moment, she knew that she had seen him before;she just couldn't place where or when.

To her amazement, she managed to speak. ’’I don't know you,’’ she said. If she tried really hard, she thought, she could probably move.

’’But I know you. And you will remember me in time.’’

It was the worst pick-up line she'd ever heard, she thought.

’’Excuse me, I have to get going,’’ she murmured, and moved an arm.

She could move!

But when she managed a step, he was suddenly directly in front of her, even though she hadn't seen him move. It was as if he had floated there.

She stared into his eyes. They were gold. No, they were dark. No, there was some kind of fire that seemed to glow from within them.

That was it. She really had lost her mind.

’’This time,’’ he said softly, ’’I have the advantage. I will not lose you again.’’

She opened her mouth to speak. She wanted to protest that he couldn't lose what he didn't have.

But the fire in his eyes was so bright....

The cross, she thought. The silver cross. If she could just produce it...

No, that would mean that she believed in vampires, and that was ridiculous.

Besides, she couldn't move her arms again. She was held by the fire in his eyes. She willed her hand to move, pleaded with her body to function....

She found the cross with her fingers and drew it out from under her shirt.

A flash of fury seemed to tear through his eyes.

He opened his mouth.

His teeth weren't yellowed;they weren't horrid, rank or dripping with gore.

They weren't teeth at all.

They were fangs.

She willed herself to back away. Because now he was coming right at her, furious at the sight of the cross. He started to reach out for her, as if he were in pain but planning to endure that pain. He was going to seize her cross and rip it from her neck.

And that was when Mark appeared.

She didn't know where he had come from;he was just suddenly there.

She felt his arms on her shoulders, felt him shove her out of the way. He was carrying, of all things, a squirt gun.

A child's squirt gun.

Then he lifted it and shot her attacker.

There was steam, a hiss, accompanied by a roar of fury.

The man with the burning eyes seemed to disappear in darkness and shadow, even as the sound of his voice remained.

And suddenly, there on the street, so near to Bourbon and yet so far, there were suddenly scores of shadows, like moving pools of darkness.

They took on form.

And life.

Mark tossed her something.

Another squirt gun.

She stared at him, still in shock, but somehow, she reflexively caught the toy.

’’Don't let anyone get the cross. Start shooting,’’ Mark ordered.

Shooting?

With a squirt gun?

They were crowding around her now. So many of them. They were people. They had been shadows, but now they were people.

A girl in a short skirt with a Betty Page haircut and cute freckles. A twenty-something guy in a Grateful Dead T-shirt. A man who looked like a James Bond wanna-be. A woman who was a dead ringer for the mom on Family Ties.

Someone almost pounced on Mark. He struck out with a kick that would have done Jackie Chan proud. Hi attacker went flying back and struck a wall-hard-then just picked himself up and started coming again.

Mark had whirled, and for a moment she thought he was shooting at her with the squirt gun, but he wasn't. She heard a cry of fury, followed by that awful hissing right behind her. She turned. A black form was turning to a pool of burning dust behind her.

A girl hopped on Mark's back. He caught her with both hands, throwing her over his shoulder to the sidewalk.

She looked like Pollyanna.

He took dead aim between her eyes with his water pistol. Shot.

She screamed.

The hissing came first.

Then there was a small burst of fire.

And she was ash.

Mark began to spin, a steady spray of water coming from his gun.

Somewhere, there was jazz music.

Somewhere, someone laughed.

A car horn blared.

The hissing continued, punctuated by screams of fury.

’’Shoot!’’ Mark thundered. ’’Turn and shoot.’’

She spun around. A man who looked like a long lost cavalier was almost on top of her. He looked so much like pictures of Charles II that shock almost caused her to hesitate.

Her finger twitched.

She pulled the trigger.

Hiss...

The man was just inches from her. He snarled and let out a cry of fury as he dissipated right in front of her, the picture of his open mouth, fangs gleaming, imprinted on her mind.

She thought that she saw fire, gleaming through a skull, as he burst into flame....

She felt something at her back. A man was there, reaching for her throat.

He touched the silver cross and screamed as his finger burned. He stared at her, his face knitting into a hideous mask of fury.

Then she saw fire for an instant, and the mask of fury become a distorted skull. He exploded, and through the soot, she could see Mark, see that he had shot the man..

And then she heard what sounded like the flapping of wings, saw a rising of shadows.

In seconds the street was quiet again. The sounds from Bourbon Street seemed to grow louder. Become real. And near.

She was still standing on the sidewalk.

She was still staring at a man.

But now the man was Mark.

She was shaking, still holding her own water pistol. He bought the good kind, she thought dryly. They held a lot of water. Kids would have a great time playing with them at a pool.

But she wasn't a kid, and she wasn't at a pool.

And already she was finding it almost impossible to believe what had just taken place.

’’Are you all right?’’ Mark asked.

Was she all right? What was he, out of his mind?

’’Am I all right?’’ she repeated. ’’Hell, no!’’

He took a breath and offered a rueful smile. ’’I'm sorry. I meant, are you hurt? Did anything...did he touch you before I got here?’’

She swallowed. She was suddenly shaking uncontrollably.

’’No.’’

He took a careful step toward her.

’’I didn't see what I just saw,’’ she whispered.

’’You did,’’ he told her.

It was impossible. It had all been so fast. It couldn't have been real.

She looked at the ground. It looked as if a careless gardener had lost dirt from a wheelbarrow as he had made his way down the street.

He reached out, taking the water pistol from her hand as carefully as if it had been a real gun.

’’We should get to Montresse House,’’ he said gently.

’’The house,’’ she echoed, frowning.

’’At least you're not passing out,’’ he murmured.

Those words suddenly gave her strength. And the little voice at the back of her mind that had whispered that there must be some veracity in the stories he had been telling her suddenly spoke up loudly.

They existed. Vampires existed.

’’Of course I'm not going to pass out!’’ she snapped. Right. She was shaking so hard that she could barely stand.

’’Let's go,’’ he said.

’’To Montresse House?’’ she asked.

’’Yes.’’

’’Of course,’’ she said, the light dawning. ’’You have a room there, too, don't you?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Deanna's been bitten by a vampire, hasn't she.’’ It was a statement, not a question. She was still having trouble digesting the fact that vampires were real.

’’Yes.’’

’’Will she live?’’

’’I hope so.’’

She started walking, her movements jerky. She felt as if she had become a puppet, a marionette, and wasn't really moving of her own volition.

As he walked at her side, it occurred to her that he had come in the nick of time.

That he had saved her life.

They were almost on Bourbon Street by then, and there were people everywhere, talking, laughing.

A drunk passed her, and he was wonderful. He was real. Normal.

’’You've been following me,’’ she said accusingly, stopping and turning on him.

’’Whenever I've been able to,’’ he said, stopping, too.

She was tempted to hit him. ’’You were late!’’

’’I thought you were at the hospital. I came as soon as I got word that you'd left,’’ he told her.

She wanted him to hold her. She wanted to crawl into his arms. No, she wanted him to be normal, too. She desperately needed to take a step back.

She opened her mouth to speak. There was so much to say, to demand to know. But nothing came out. She didn't know where to start.

She took a step toward him, then another. She leaned against him. He seemed solid. Strong. His arms came around her, holding her, and she stood there, shaking.

Oh, God, it was so much better here....

She laid a hand on his shirt, feeling the strength of his body was through the fabric. She had wanted to be near him, but she had been afraid.

Even now, she didn't dare trust him, even if...

Even if he had saved her life.

But she needed the clean, male scent of him, the vital strength of his form....

The sound of his voice.

Oh, God, it would be so easy to...

She pulled away from him and started walking again.

They reached the house on Bourbon Street, and all of a sudden the air seemed to be full of birds. Masses of birds. Or bats.

Or winged shadows.

Mark saw them, too, and his face tensed. But he didn't appear to be afraid. Instead, he looked angry.

’’Open the gate,’’ he said softly.

She did, and the birds or bats, or shadows, continued to hover overhead. But they didn't come closer.

She and Mark walked up the pathway to the house. The front door opened before they were even half way there. ’’Come in, come in, and hurry, please,’’ Stacey said.

It was evident that she'd already met Mark.

’’What happened?’’ she demanded.

’’Stephan made his first real play for Lauren,’’ Mark explained.

’’Oh, my God, where? When?’’ She looked at Lauren suspiciously. ’’He didn't...?’’

’’No,’’ Mark told her. ’’But he's getting bolder. She was right off Bourbon.’’

Stacey let out a sigh. ’’Was he alone?’’

’’No. He has an army with him, just as I predicted,’’ Mark said.

Lauren stared from one of them to the other. They were talking as if the city were under siege, and by an enemy they had fought before.

’’A regular infestation,’’ Stacey muttered. Then she saw the way that Lauren was staring at her and smiled, shrugging her shoulders. ’’I assume now you understand the rule about not inviting anyone in, anyone at all.’’

’’Yeah, I understand,’’ Lauren said. Because she did. They were insane. And she was insane, too, because she was seeing what they saw.

’’I'm sorry,’’ she murmured. ’’I'm trying so hard to...’’

’’To believe what's unbelievable,’’ Stacey said.

’’So you do believe that vampires exist?’’ Lauren said.

’’Of course,’’ Stacey told her.

’’But....’’

Stacey shook her head, staring at Lauren. ’’But why doesn't the world know? You've just seen them-and you still don't completely believe. And,’’ she said, and hesitated, looking at Mark, ’’I think that Mr. Davidson could tell you that there are plenty of vampires out there who are living their lives in as normal a manner as possible, hurting no one. But there are also those who...’’ Again, she paused. ’’There are people, regular people, who are psychotic. Cold-blooded killers. It's no different in the world of the undead.’’

’’The undead,’’ Lauren murmured slowly. ’’In other words, I may already know some vampires, good vampires, and I just don't realize it.’’

’’Maybe.’’ Stacey said. ’’Many exist without their closest friends knowing the truth.’’

’’Sure they do,’’ Lauren said skeptically.

’’I know that this is a lot to take in,’’ Mark said.

’’But the important thing is, you're safe here,’’ Stacey said. ’’Big Jim sleeps out in the caretaker's cottage, Bobby is here a lot of the time, and I've been through this myself before. Our only weaknesses can come from within.’’

Lauren stared at them. ’’Lieutenant Canady told us to come here. Are you telling me that a police lieutenant believes in vampires?’’

’’Yes,’’ Mark told her.

’’His wife used to be one,’’ Stacey explained matter-of-factly.

’’Used to be?’’ Lauren said.

’’No one really understands what happened there, but Maggie was a vampire. For years and years. Then Sean came into her life, they had a major battle with a really vicious enemy, and then...she was human again. It was really great for Maggie, because she desperately wanted to have a family. It's different with Jessica Fraser, who owns this place. She's vampire, too. A good one, of course.’’

’’Of course.’’

’’That's why Sean sent you here,’’ Stacey explained. ’’We know how to fight evil. We've all fought vampires before.’’

’’The bad ones, of course,’’ Lauren murmured.

’’Of course,’’ Stacey said, gravely serious.

Could this nightmare be real? Lauren wondered.

When she'd woken up just a few days ago, the world had been spinning on its axis, and, though they'd had their problems, they had all been...

Sane.

But now...

Mark Davidson set a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up into his eyes. Serious eyes, striking eyes, eyes that had practically hypnotized her from the start.

’’It will be all right. I don't intend to stop until I've taken Stephan down, and it won't matter how many servants he has running around, doing his bidding.’’

’’Right.’’ She knew she sounded exhausted and disbelieving, and she didn't care.

’’I need a shower,’’ he said. For the first time she noticed that there was black, sooty, stuff all over his shirt.

She realized that she was covered withg it, as well.

It was death.

Ashes to ashes.

Dust to dust.

She was literally wearing the evil of untold years.

Realization hit her, and suddenly she thought she was going to pass out.

She remembered where she had seen the man who had accosted her on the street before.

She had seen him in the crystal ball.

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