Blood Red Chapter 9
The shower felt good. Mark made the water as hot as he could, and the steam rose around him, and though he wondered if he would ever again feel that he was clean, really clean, given that he'd been doing this so long, he certainly felt a hell of a better physically.
Maybe, if he ever succeeded in destroying Stephan, he would receive vindication, and in that, surely, there would be a little peace.
Thinking back, he had to admit that it had actually been an amazing day.
It wasn't often that you found out that a police lieutenant not only believed in what you were saying but actually had experience battling vampires. And then there had been the moments on the sidewalk.
He'd known that Stephan would eventually come after Lauren himself, but he hadn't known when, where or exactly how. And when he'd stumbled onto Stephan in the act of transforming, he'd thought he had a chance to rid the world of the man-the creature-forever.
But Stephan had no intention of dying. True, Mark had managed to take him by surprise with the holy water, but Stephan was going to be harder to kill than that. And like any cult leader, Stephan had minions ready to die in service to him. Mark knew he was lucky that, so far, those who had been summoned to do battle with him while Stephan disappeared were, for the most part, inexperienced. Old enough to know how to do some hunting, foolish enough to be rash. None of them had been around long-not even the cavalier this afternoon. That guy must have come from some costume party.
But then, that was always the way it was in any war. Send out the expendable forces first.
He gritted his teeth in anger, curious that Stephan had begun to bother keeping his population in check at all. He thought about the poor murdered girls whose decapitated corpses had been tossed into the river. It was possible but unlikely that some of his newer minions were perpetrating the crimes. He had a feeling that Stephan was doing this himself.
Stephan liked to create an aura of fear.
He liked it when the authorities thought they were going after a heinous-but human-madman.
Of course, he hadn't planned on a man like Sean Canady.
In all honesty, Mark hadn't imagined encountering such a situation himself. It wasn't just the cop who knew that vampires existed. There was an alliance of people in New Orleans who knew and made it their business to do something about the dangerous ones. Unfortunately, most of them were out of the country at the moment.
According to Sean's wife, Maggie, most of the real horrors were occurring in third world countries where people had nothing, no money and no hope, and government coups were constant, where AIDS was prevalent, and there was so much hardship and sadness that the vampires could rule their fiefdoms with little distraction.
But Sean was still here, as were a few others, though Sean hadn't named them as yet. Mark knew he still had to tread carefully with the other if he wanted to earn his trust. Maggie was more open. She had listened gravely to everything he had to say, then told him a few stories about some of their friends.
It had been an absurd conversation-or would have been, if he weren't who he was and the situation weren't so dire.
And now Stephan had shown himself.
Most of all, Lauren finally believed him about the existence of vampires. More, he prayed, he thought she was actually beginning to believe in him.
As he got out of the shower, he decided it was important to get over to the hospital.
As he towel dried his hair, another towel around his hips, he heard a quiet tapping at his door. He hesitated, not quite ready for visitors.
’’Yeah?’’ he said.
’’It's me. Lauren.’’
He paused again.
Then he walked to the door and opened it.
Her eyes seemed to be even more brilliantly green than he had remembered. Her hair shimmered with an ever greater touch of fire. She was pale, but she appeared strong and wary.
And she was standing in his doorway.
’’May I come in?’’ she asked.
’’Um...sure.’’ He moved outside, sweeping out a hand.
She walked in and perched at the foot of his bed. If she noticed his state of undress, she gave no sign.
She smelled erotically of shampoo, soap and perfume. She had chosen a plain black knit dress, and it hugged her curves in a way he couldn't help but notice.
’’Did that really-I mean, really, happen?’’ she inquired.
’’Yes,’’ he said simply.
’’It's impossible,’’ she murmured, staring at him. He could tell that she wanted him to somehow deny the reality of it.
He strode over to the bed, taking a seat at her side, meeting her eyes but not touching her. ’’What's impossible?’’ he whispered. ’’There's all kind of evil in the world. Mostly it comes in human form. Today it came in vampire form, that's all. Stephan is real, and his little army of would-be assassins is real. I tried to tell you what was going on. And I blame myself for what happened to Deanna. At first I thought you would be the only one in real danger. But he's getting to you by going through Deanna.’’
’’Will she get better?’’
’’There's definitely hope,’’ he told her.
She stood and walked restlessly to the balcony doors. She pulled back the drape and looked out at the night.
’’It's so beautiful,’’ she said. There was a strange and poignant longing in her voice.
’’It is,’’ he agreed.
To his amazement, she let go of the drape and walked straight over to him.
’’I should cut to the chase,’’ she said softly. ’’There are things I have to do tonight.’’
’’You mean, you want to go back to the hospital.’’
’’Yes, that, and...’’
She let her voice trail off, her eyes still on his. She was so close that he was practically breathing her in, and it was painful. Because she wasn't Katie.
She wasn't Katie at all.
It had been the familiarity that had first drawn him to her, but her deep russet hair was all her own, as were the ever-changing emerald and gold of her eyes. And her seductive smile...that, too, was hers and hers alone.
’’Yes?’’ he asked softly. ’’And...?’’
She slipped her arms around his neck and drew close. Her lips found his, while her body pressed tightly against his flesh. The kind of tight that caused the curves and hollows of their bodies to meet in perfect alignment. He was painfully aware of the fullness of her breasts, could feel the pressure of his instant erection and knew she could feel it, too.
She wasn't Katie, he reminded himself.
She was Lauren, and she was in shock. As strong as she might be normally, she was vulnerable right now. If he had any decency at all, he would step away and...
Who the hell could be that damned decent?
There was no hesitation in her lips. They molded to his, and her mouth was sweet, with a hint of mint, the sweep of her tongue an inducement and a tease, a hint of sheer enticement.
A voice spoke in his head.
But he couldn't do it. Her fingers played across his chest, and her touch was electrifying. He was locked in a kiss that seemed to grow deeper and more passionate by the moment. Amazed that she had come to him, he cupped her face, needing more of her lips. His fingers threaded through her hair. Silk and velvet, a form of seduction all its own, it fell over his hands.
She stepped away from him then and, meeting his eyes, lifted the hem of her skirt and pulled her dress over her head. Then she stood before him wearing nothing except for strappy high-heeled sandals.
’’You go out that way often?’’ he couldn't help but ask, his voice husky.
She smiled. ’’Only here,’’ she assured him. And she moved back into his arms.
He didn't have to shed his towel. It managed to disappear on its own.
After that there was nothing between them, nothing at all, and he was touching her completely, savoring the feel of her flesh, trying not to give in to sheer insanity.
He had hungered for her, watched her, been awakened by her, and through it all, he had somehow kept his sanity, kept a clear head....
His mouth lifted from hers, nuzzled against her earlobe, caressed the smooth flesh of her throat. She arched against him, fingertips running down his back. Along his spine. Over his buttocks. He felt his muscles flex and tighten.
Her lips pressed against his throat.
Her tongue teased his flesh, traced a searing line along his jugular.
He picked her up and made his way to the bed. They fell on it together, limbs already entwined before they even touched the mattress. His eyes met her, and she smiled slightly;then she sought his lips again, and their kiss that was wet and searing and overpowered every. At last his mouth left her lips and traveled down to her collar bone, where it taunted and explored. He drew his hand up from her thigh to her hip, moved her midriff, then caressed her breast before he laved and teased with his tongue.
As he tasted her, he felt her fingertips, erotic, light, sensual, moving down his spine.
Around to his ribs.
To his erection.
He groaned against her flesh, kissed his way along her skin, urgency racing through him. He wanted her right then;he wanted her forever. He wanted this to go on, and he felt he would lose his sanity if it did.
He moved lower.
Teasing, tasting, the silken, fiery feel of her flesh creating a searing thunder in his mind, in his blood. She arched against him, whispered in longing and in protest, and moved with a subtle and sinuous grace that aroused his every muscle, every cell. His excitement was raw, carnal, soaring. Somehow he held on to his tenuous control As he teased and caressed her from the rise of her breasts to her abdomen, inner thighs, between. He heard her cries, felt the tremors of release shudder through her body, and felt her fingers dance across his flesh as she strove to drive him to an equal madness.
But he had been maddened from her first whisper.
From the first sight of her.
She moved against him, rising, finding his lips again, her body sliding against his. Their fingers entwined, and then she was on top him, still moving, and her hair was a spill of red twilight and magic, enveloping them both in silk. He moved inside her in a reflex of motion and fury, and then his arms were around her and she was beneath him, and the world was filled with heat and the meshing of their bodies. When he felt her surge and shudder, he felt the explosion of his own climax rip through him like thunder, and he drew her to him again, savoring every shock and tremor that followed. The ragged pulse of his heart and lungs made a strange and staccato music in the night, and the pulse of her heart raged against his own, then eased slowly.
Lying at her side, he breathed in the scent of her, and when he turned, at last, meeting her eyes, her gaze was on him.
She smiled slowly. ’’I might have been a bit aggressive,’’ she said, blushing.
’’Please...feel free to be aggressive any time,’’ he offered.
She reached out, moving a damp lock of hair from his forehead. ’’You are sane,’’ she murmured.
’’Thank you. Not the compliment I might have expected or hoped for at the moment, but thank you.’’
Her smiled deepened, but then she sobered, staring into his eyes. ’’There are vampires.’’
’’Do you have any idea how incomprehensible that is to me?’’
’’Yes.’’ He nodded, and stroked her cheek. ’’You're incredible.’’
She trembled slightly, her lashes veiling her eyes. ’’So are you. Is that the compliment you were looking for?’’ she asked, meeting his eyes again, a slight teasing note in her voice.
He smiled. ’’Evening is here,’’ he said.
She nodded, rising up on one elbow. ’’I...I have to get to the hospital,’’ she told him, fingering the cross around her neck. ’’Will this protect me?’’
’’To an extent. Stephan has ways of seeing that they're removed, but...don't go anywhere without a water pistol.’’
She started to laugh, and there were tears in her eyes. He sat up, sweeping his arms around her, holding her very tightly, cradling her.
’’Hey,’’ he murmured awkwardly.
’’I'm sorry...it's just...a water pistol. It's holy water, right?’’
She pulled away, staring at him. ’’If...the holy water kills so easily, how is that Stephan is still...not dead?’’
He let out a sigh. ’’So far, the second he's been injured, he's managed to disappear before my weapons can do their work. Because he has so many of his lackeys with him, they've kept me busy while he makes his escape.’’ There was so much he still had to explain. And considering everything she'd had to accept so far, she was doing very well. He had to be careful, though, just how much information to impart and how fast.
She needed enough to keep herself safe, but not too much. Information overload could be a very dangerous thing.
’’Young vampires are rash, impetuous, and not very powerful. They think they're invincible, and they're not. But they are killers, and they kill easily, because most people are unaware of their existence. Because people tend to be trusting. Because vampires can...seduce.’’
She frowned. ’’Deanna kept telling me there were two men. She insisted that Jonas was good and that there was someone else. Someone who was evil.’’
’’She might have been right.’’
’’But you said Jonas was a vampire.’’
He hesitated. ’’Yes,’’ he finally said.
’’So he's evil.’’
’’I don't know.’’
’’I don't understand.’’
He lowered his head, wincing. How much could he expect her to believe?
’’You know, of course, that terrible things have happened throughout history. The Spanish Inquisition was one of the worst instances of man's inhumanity to man, but it didn't make all churchmen evil. Stalin carried out a blood bath, but all Russians weren't evil. Hitler was a maniac, but that didn't make all Germans bad. Terrorists kill in the name of God, but most Muslims are kind and compassionate and humane, as Mohammed taught.’’
She was once again staring at him as if he had lost his mind.
’’What the hell are you saying?’’ she asked.
He lifted his hands. ’’That there are good vampires.’’
He answered very slowly and carefully. ’’Vampires who want to coexist with humans in peace, who have retained the essence of humanity themselves. The woman who owns this house is actually a very wise...’’ He paused. ’’And good vampire.’’
She leapt out of bed, staring at him. He'd gone too far. Her eyes accused him of the absolute depths of madness.
’’You-you know all this?’’ she said, her tone skeptical, her eyes enormous. And yet...he almost smiled at his own unconscious response to her. She was naked, staring at him, hair wild and beautiful, and his heart was pounding again. Of course, given what he'd just told her, she was undoubtedly thinking that she would never let him anywhere near her again.
’’Lauren, there's so much...’’
’’I have to get to the hospital,’’ she said curtly.
’’I'll take you. I have a car,’’ he told her.
Her features were tense. But she nodded, grabbing her dress, throwing it over her head. ’’Ten minutes. I need to shower and change. For the night.’’
He wasn't sure what that meant, but she was gone. He winced, then rose and headed back for the shower himself. He quickly rinsed off and dressed.
At least she was here, at Montresse House. At least she had agreed to let him drive her to the hospital. At least...
He had touched her. Made love to her.
At least now she had an idea of the mortal danger she was facing.
He wanted to think they could have a future.
He didn't dare.
There were a number of tourists wandering the Square. That was good, Susan thought. It was almost like old times. There was a caricaturist just a few feet away, sketching a young couple who were obviously in love. A young woman in a gypsy skirt and turban had set up on the other side of the artist.
She sat quietly at her own table for a moment, closing her eyes, her hands lying on the tarot card before her. She didn't turn over the cards;she just closed her eyes and listened.
She could hear the rumble of the mule drawn carriages.
A sax playing to her left.
There was chatter.
Someone who was already a few sheets to the wind stumbled on the sidewalk and was helped by a more sober companion.
She concentrated harder.
Her full name was Susan Beauvais, and her family had been in the area for centuries. One ancestor had fled the bloody revolution that erupted in Haiti in 1791. Over the hundreds of years since, she'd accumulated all sorts different ancestors. Someone had been white. At least one had been an Indian. But it had been her mother, a Creole, who had told her about the magic that went untapped by most people throughout their lives. Reading tarot cards, palms and the crystal ball made for a decent living, but there was so much more a person could learn.
She didn't always feel comfortable with her power. Sometimes people were better off when they didn't know what lay ahead.
But there were other times when it was necessary for people to know what they were about to face. And this was such a time.
She'd sensed troubles like these before, but never so strong, so frightening.
She concentrated more fully, and at last it came to her.
A soft sound, a rustling on the wind.
Yes...she could hear it. The flapping of wings.
She looked up at the sky. Bats. There were often bats here. They rested high up in the eaves of the taller buildings.
She removed her hands from her cards, asked the artist to watch her table, then stood and hurried over to the church, looking around nervously as she went.
The great doors remained open, though they would be closed very soon.
Inside, she knelt down in the aisle and pulled the huge cross she always wore from beneath the cotton fabric of her shirt, then she held it tightly as she murmured her prayer.
Though she didn't look up, she sensed it when someone slid into the pew beside her. She shook her head. ’’You should not be here.’’
’’It's my home,’’ he said.
’’There is a very fine line between good and evil,’’ she said, turning to looked up at the handsome young man in the pew. ’’You may get caught in the crossfire.’’
’’There are very bad times coming,’’ he said.
Susan bowed her head again. ’’Yes, I know.’’
’’I have to be here.’’
’’I will pray for you,’’ Susan said.
’’You must help,’’ he said.
’’And how can I do that?’’
’’You see things.’’
She turned and stared at him. ’’It's not as if there's a movie playing in my head. I see what comes to me. If I could choose, if I could see see how to fight evil at every turn, there wouldn't be any evil. But you-you should go elsewhere.’’
’’Many here don't trust you.’’
’’I intend to prove myself.’’
She stared at him again. ’’You don't know what you're up against-on either side.’’
’’Then I'll learn,’’ he said grimly.
Susan watched him carefully as he rose to leave the church. When he had been gone for several minutes, she rose herself and found the holy water vessel. She dampened her fingers and drew the sign of the cross not just on her forehead, but on her arms, across her chest above her heart, and in several places around her throat.
Belatedly, she noticed that there was a young priest at the back of the church, and he was staring at her in perplexed silence.
’’Evening, Father,’’ she said.
He nodded to her. Tongue-tied, maybe.
As she left, she smiled.
She returned to her table and again put her fingertips on her cards and closed her eyes. She could still hear the sound of wings beneath the laughter, beneath the carriage wheels and the clip-clop of the mules'hooves.
Should she keep her peace? Or try to contact the young woman? There was much she needed to know.
’’I'd love a reading,’’ someone said.
She looked up.
And her blood turned cold.
It was him.
Heidi seemed annoyed to see Lauren and Mark when they got to the hospital.
Lauren was distressed to see that her friend was no longer wearing her engagement ring. But with Mark in the room, she didn't want to have a showdown with Heidi. She couldn't begin to imagine what had possessed her to forget how much she loved Barry. They'd been together since they had left college and moved to California. They'd been living together for two years. They wanted the same things, two children, another Norwegian Elkhound, one cat, and vacations spent hiking through the Redwoods.
’’I'm fine here by myself, you know,’’ Heidi said.
Mark, not really paying attention, had walked over to Deanna's side. He touched her brow and seemed relieved, then reached into the pocket of his jeans and produced another cross on a chain.
’’What are you doing?’’ Heidi said sharply.
’’Just saying a prayer,’’ Mark replied, carefully slipping the chain around Deanna's neck and fumbling just a bit with the tiny clasp.
Deanna shifted restlessly in her deep sleep, then settled again.
’’She doesn't want that!’’ Heidi snapped.
’’It's okay, Heidi,’’ Lauren told her. ’’I-I bought it for her,’’ she lied.
’’Well, that was stupid,’’ Heidi said crossly.
’’It won't hurt anything,’’ Lauren said, disturbed by the strange way Heidi was acting. ’’
You should take that thing off her,’’ Heidi said.
’’Why on earth?’’ Lauren demanded.
Heidi didn't have an answer at first. ’’I think her mom is part Jewish,’’ she said at last.
’’Then we'll get her a star of David, too,’’ Mark said.
Heidi opened her mouth, apparently puzzled, then closed it again when she couldn't come up with anything to say.
’’I think you need to get out of here for a while,’’ Lauren said firmly.
’’I...I'm needed here,’’ Heidi said.
’’Lauren is here now,’’ Mark told her.
’’Right. I can stay here, and you two can go have a nice meal in the Quarter,’’ Lauren said.
Mark had never suggested such a thing, but surely he wouldn't want Heidi roaming around on her own. Not if everything he'd said was true.
Not if winged creatures could suddenly turn into vampires and attack just a few feet away from Bourbon Street.
’’Um...sure,’’ Mark said, offering Heidi his most engaging smile. ’’I'll take you out for a bit.’’
’’I just feel that I should stay here,’’ Heidi said stubbornly.
Actually, Lauren wished she could go out with Heidi herself, maybe get an idea of what was going on with her.
But would it be safe? Even forewarned and forearmed, with her cross and the somewhat smaller water pistol she'd stashed in her purse, could she really defeat what she could barely believed existed?
’’Maybe I should take Heidi out for a bit and you should stay here,’’ Lauren suggested.
Mark stared at her, just short of scowling.
Okay, bad idea.
He looked at Heidi. His voice was firm, his eyes meeting hers. ’’Heidi, let me take you to dinner.’’
To Lauren's amazement, Heidi rose as if she'd never disagreed. As if she thought it was the most natural thing in the world.
Mark set his hands on Lauren's shoulders. ’’You stay here. And be careful.’’
’’This is a hospital. There's a cop in the hall,’’ she reminded him.
’’Be careful,’’ he repeated.
What the hell could possibly happen to her in a hospital room?
’’We won't be long. Come on, Heidi,’’ Mark said.
Lauren nodded, picking up a magazine and dragging her chair nearer to Deanna's bed. As soon as the other two left, she touched her friend's forehead. Her skin seemed to be a normal temperature. She looked good, her breathing sounded even, and when Lauren rested two fingers on her pulse, it was beating regularly.
And still she slept like a princess awaiting her true love's kiss, Lauren thought whimsically.
She rose for a minute and adjusted the television set. She flicked around between channels, aggravated as she came to one program after another that she didn't want to see, even shows she usually found entertaining.
Finally, she decided on the Cartoon Network. Spongebob Squarepants fit the bill for the moment.
She was half listening to the TV and flipping through the pages of one of Heidi's magazines when a nurse came in to check on Deanna. Lauren tensed, suspicious. Great. Was she going to start suspecting everybody now?
The nurse added a new bag to Deanna's IV and assured Lauren that her friend was doing very well and with luck would come to soon. All the signs were right, and her red-cell count was rising nicely.
Lauren thanked her and tried to settle back and get comfortable once the nurse was gone.. She flipped a page, bored, worried.
What had she done?
Aggressive was actually an understatement when it came to describing her behavior earlier that night. But she couldn't be sorry. She had forgotten time and place and all the horrors that had so suddenly entered her life. He had made her feel erotic, sensual, beautiful. As if she had known him forever, as if the world was perfectly right and normal. As if....
As if they hadn't just battled the undead in an alley, as if one of her best friends wasn't lying there in a coma. He seemed to be everything right in the world, the perfect man, a man with whom she could easily fall in love....
She nearly jumped from her chair, then looked over at the bed.
At first it didn't appear as if Deanna had moved. But then she stretched, as if in discomfort. Her hands fluttered, moved to her throat.
Her eyes remained closed, but her lips moved. She was murmuring something. Lauren went over to her, leaning in close.
’’Deanna, I'm here. What is it.’’
Lauren's breath caught. ’’Deanna, I'm here. It's all right,’’ she managed at last. ’’What about the fortune-teller?’’
’’The fortune-teller,’’ Deanna repeated.
Lauren took a seat on the bed, holding her friend's hands, squeezing them with what she hoped felt like reassurance.
’’It's all right. She isn't anywhere near us,’’ Lauren said.
’’Danger,’’ Deanna mouthed.
Lauren looked around. The door to the hall was ajar. She could hear footsteps in the hall, along with volices. She heard the cop directing someone to another room.
There was no danger anywhere near.
’’It's all right,’’ she soothed. ’’Deanna, I'm here. It's all right. We're safe.’’
Suddenly Deanna's eyes opened wide, and she stared at Lauren. She even attempted a weak smile.
’’Deanna?’’ Lauren said, feeling greatly relieved but still slightly chilled. And wary.
She squeezed her friend's hands again.
Deanna looked like...Deanna. Lauren was stunned to feel tears stinging her eyes, she was so relieved.
’’How are you? How do you feel?’’ she whispered.
Deanna tried to smile Again, but the attempt failed. ’’Afraid,’’ she said softly.
’’Because of the fortune-teller?’’ Lauren asked.
Deanna frowned, as if she had no idea what Lauren was talking about.
’’You don't need to be afraid. I'm here,’’ Lauren told her.
Deanna looked away for a moment. ’’No. You don't understand. He comes to me. He comes for me,’’ she said.
’’No one is coming for you. You're in the hospital. I'm here. The police have even put a guard in the hallway. You're safe.’’
Deanna shook her head. ’’No,’’ she murmured. ’’He comes in the darkness, in my dreams.’’
’’I'm here, and I won't let anyone near you.. I promise.’’ Lauren paused, weighing her words carefully. ’’Honestly, I understand. He's evil and tries to slip into your mind, and you're afraid that...that he'll get through to you somehow.’’
Deanna stared at her. ’’You can't protect me,’’ she whispered.
’’I can,’’ Lauren promised. ’’Deanna, there are...others who know about his kind of evil. It's going to be okay, honestly. I can protect you.’’ Her heart skipped a beat. Could she?
Yes. She could be strong, very strong. She knew she could. Even if she was afraid. Even if she knew a truth that couldn't be....
’’Deanna, you said something about the fortune-teller.’’ She hesitated, then asked, ’’Is she evil?’’
Deanna only looked fretful and didn't seem to hear her.
Lauren felt a flash of anger at that damn fortune-teller. Everything seemed to have started with her. She had to find the woman.
’’Deanna, listen to me. Everything is going to be all right.’’
Deanna suddenly started and cried out. ’’No!’’
There was sheer terror in her voice.
Lauren looked down at her friend, who was looking fixedly toward the window.
Lauren followed her gaze.
A dark shadow, ebony against gray, seemed to hover outside in the night.
And from it, twin orbs of fire seemed to glow.
Like a pair of eyes....
Straight from hell.