"Tell me again why we just took a flight from L.A. to New Orleans at seven-oh-five in the morning, with no sleep, no real weapons - because we have no real luggage, other than a duffle bag with some lights and disguised stakes and shit - which has put us in New Orleans, by way of Dallas, in the middle of mosquito country, at two nineteen in the afternoon... and, we only have an hour to spare, traffic notwithstanding, to go back home? Huh? I'm just curious why we headed east to lose two hours of precious sun, when the light is two hours to our favor in the west - on a wild goose chase, I might add - please, somebody tell me?"
Damali kept her eyes focused on the expressway, monitoring the signs on I-10 as she pushed her foot down on the gas. "First of all, it's still just a little past noon back in L.A., Rider, which means we'll fly into the light and out of the dark. And, Dan is handling the interviews - gives him a chance to get some media hype... he gave them my photo and a statement for the interviews I'll miss. So just relax."
Rider glared at her and then took up his argument with Big Mike, who only shook his head.
"We are in a Budget rental car, not a fortified Hum-V - and we are heading northwest to the Lakefront area - which just so happens to dead end, literally, at a cemetery."
Rider folded his arms over his chest, imploring Mike with a glance to take up his cause. "So, I ask myself - self, what is wrong with this picture? Why would a reasonable man - who has been on starvation monk rations - pass the renowned French Quarter and all its daytime beauties, give up the best poker and gambling in the country, not hit a liquor store in the city that never closes its bars, to go, practically unarmed, into a master vampire's lair on a hummer?"
When Damali continued to ignore Rider, and Big Mike would only chuckle, Rider's pleas became more fervent.
"I also ask myself - self, why... for the love of God, would I go to a place that got its start in very shaky historical circumstances of double-crossings, royal crown incest, and war... where six thousand people just coincidentally died of cholera, twelve thousand more of yellow fever... where it was so bad that the dead wagons would roll down the streets and the local authorities would shout, 'Bring out your dead!' Huh? We are going to a place where fires burned the city down however many times - and they have cities of the dead within the city - where there're swamps and alligators and snakes and hurricanes and floods and because the water table is so high, tombs are aboveground, not buried, like in most urban environs, in these mass-tomb cities... is anybody feelin' me? It's the vampire Big Apple, okay?"
Big Mike laughed and pounded Rider's fist. "I feel you - the vamps got a point. The women are fine, the food is good - crawfish and po-boys and jambalaya, red beans and rice, jazz..."
"Yes," Rider snapped, not amused. "In the daytime, Mike. In the damned daytime! I do not want to have bouillabaisse or a well-seasoned roux sucked out of my neck by one of the thousands of topside grave dwellers who might still have a penchant for fine dining! Do you hear me? I'm trying to live the quiet life - I'm reformed - we already did a Mardi Gras together, you and I, remember?"
"Yeah..." Big Mike drawled. "I remember."
"Remember? That's putting it mildly - how about a mental tattoo, for chrissake? A hundred thousand women in the streets, most of them inebriated to perfection and willing to part with their bras and panties for mere plastic beads - and what did we wind up with?"
"Two of the finest, biggest assed, worth-your-jugular-rock-da-house female vamps in the world, Rider... aw man," Big Mike sighed and closed his eyes. "It was awesome - I love New Orleans! Damn... I remember like it was yesterday. Sorry for the vivid recollection, baby sis, but Rider just took me back."
"You have to get him out of the compound more, Damali. I can't take it!"
Rider opened his arms when Damali began laughing and he pretended to stake himself in the chest. "Do you see what I have to contend with? Big Mike ain't been right since he got blasted by gris-gris voodoo!"
Big Mike peered up at Damali and winked.
"But she was fine, man," Big Mike chuckled and shut his eyes again, still laughing. "Part Choctaw, part Creole, part Caribbean-African queen... and she could cook. Have mercy, brother. You don't know what you missed."
"Missed? Big Mike, let us not forget," Rider said, not believing his ears, his voice rising with every word, "she had one little character flaw, dude - fangs!"
"Yeah, but she was all that. Still get the shivers thinkin' about her."
"Mike, listen to yourself, brother!" Rider moved his arms wildly now as Damali and Big Mike laughed.
"Do you hear him, D? Do you hear the man? He's delirious, delusional...he's getting a nervous tic from being locked up in the compound too long. I can't take it. I just can't take it. Pull over and let me out - I'm going to a bar, then heading back to L.A. on the next thing smoking."
By now Damali was waving her hand for them to cut it out. She couldn't breathe from laughing so hard.
"By law, they close the tombs for a year and a day - did you know that? Why? Because pestilence was once so rampant - and Mike keeps telling me the woman was fine!"
"She could make a gumbo to die for, and - "
"You almost did, you crazy sonofabitch. Marlene had to take your ass to some Doctor Buzzard shaman to get the spell off of you!"
"But, damn, man, you have no idea - "
"The only reason you're alive is because you're packing fourteen inches, and she didn't want to take that rare natural resource off the planet!"
The two guardians stopped the debate midstream and looked at each other, one swallowing a smile, the other so embarrassed that he couldn't fuss anymore and had been temporarily rendered mute. Damali glanced at Big Mike and Rider. She couldn't help it, and it took everything in her to keep her jaw from dropping. Fourteen inches? Get out of here! Go Mike . . . She shook her head.
"Fellas, that was way more information than I needed to know." She tried not to laugh, or let her expression change as she'd made the statement, but her mind was still trying to cope. Nah. Bullshit. Rider always exaggerated and talked smack. Fourteen... ? Dayum, compound, bro.
Big Mike looked out the window and swallowed another chuckle. Rider scowled, shook his head, and sighed.
Try as she might, she couldn't stop giggling from time to time as they made their way to the Lakefront area. But as they neared the cemetery, they all became more focused and the mirth dissipated.
"All right - first we go check on the vault that he once occupied, then we cruise by his mansion on Lake Pontchartrain. We get a floor plan so we can come back with the full team later, if we can get inside, and then we go back home. Very simple."
"Well, at least his joint is lakeside and not on the Mississippi - closer to the swamplands," Big Mike said in a very cheerful voice that made both him and Damali smile while Rider grumbled.
"The only part about this I like, is the part about getting back on the plane - it's so damned humid out here you can cut the air with a knife... and let's not even begin to discuss the mosquitoes - New Orleans in the summer, in a graveyard and an abandoned vamp's mansion, ain't my idea of the quiet life."
Big Mike and Damali ignored Rider as they got out of the car and began walking toward the vault in the area that Marlene had identified. They passed rows and rows of the ten-foot-long white structures, their footsteps making quiet shuffling noises against the soft, grass-covered earth. Wet was the only way to describe the environment - in New Orleans nothing ever seemed to totally dry, Damali noted, remembering her own brief experience there as a child.
"They covered the bricks with white plaster because the damp air crumbled the bricks. Mar said Nuit's tomb wouldn't be white, though, but some type of marble... and he's in the black Catholic Creole section in the back. He was black blueblood. Said that's how her posse had found him twenty years ago."
"Whatever, Damali," Rider sighed. "All I know is, I'm worried about what might be still kicking inside the waiting wall - that section over there where the bodies go and have to wait until a real tomb can be opened."
He shook his head and spit. "Nasty, I tell you. We are in a place where, if the tomb was already locked for the one-year ordinance they'd dump a body in that very unsecured-looking waiting wall safety-deposit-box area - so the remains could be cremated by sunlight and heat... then just push whatever maggoty mess was left off the vault slab into a three-foot cavern behind it - within the vault, ladies and gentlemen, to make room to slide the next casket in. That is what we are about to walk into - in this insufferable heat!"
Rider slapped his neck and flicked the offending mosquito off his hand. "Even the bugs drink your blood out here!"
"Rider, please shut up," Damali said, exasperated. "You are not making any of this easier."
"Oh, please forgive me," Rider said with a wave of his arm. "My bad. Let me not cast a negative vibration on this fun excursion."
They walked a while longer in silence, only Big Mike's occasional private chuckles to himself breaking the barrier between them. When they came to a halt in front of the dark-gray marble tomb identified as Nuit's, Big Mike turned to Rider with a wide grin.
"Laissez les bon temps rouler - let the good times roll."
"Mike, did that female vamp tell you that? You are getting on my nerves, dude. Seriously."
Mike laughed. "Yeah, she did... over, and over, and over again. Iron lace and criminals... God, I love New Orleans."
Rider frowned and was about to speak, but Damali held up her hand.
"Fellas, please. Break it up. It's showtime. I need to concentrate if you want a seer." She needed to steady herself and hoped they wouldn't notice. Since her brief encounter with Carlos, she'd also been practically blind. It was as though holding him sent such a current through her that it had literally blown her mind like a fuse. Then, she had absorbed all of Marlene's pain right after. She was emotionally exhausted, and had trouble focusing on anything except Carlos's current location and safety. She was drawing a blank, but didn't want to shake her team members' confidence. Half of winning any battle required having one's head right. If you believed, had confidence, you could conquer anything. "You guys ready?"
Disgruntled, Rider finally nodded, glowering at Mike's happy expression.
"Pestilence, plague, those were the weapons of Nuit's era, D. Don'tcha think we should consider the fact that disease is still a standard way to off somebody?"
"There hasn't been a member of Nuit's line alive to bring back the plague or go in here in a long time," she argued.
"My point exactly."
"All right, Rider, listen. We get in, see if this is where he sleeps - then we're out. It's early afternoon. What can happen?"
"In the dark, with his last ounce of strength, the bastard could sit up quick and rip somebody's heart out." Rider glanced at Big Mike who was now serious. "Ain't funny, is it, Mike? Obviously you do remember some of the other aspects of New Orleans not in the 'must see' section of the travel guides."
Mike nodded and let out his breath, adjusting the duffle bag on his shoulder. "Two minutes - everybody hold a stake, I'll move the lid."
They passed a strained glance between them as Rider and Mike pried the tomb open. Thick cobwebs blocked the entrance and something unseen skittered in a dark corner. They covered their mouths against the musty, dank smell. Within minutes, Big Mike had broken the coffin covering off with a drum anchor and chime chisel. Bones and frayed pieces of fabric greeted them once they removed the lid, but thankfully nothing moved.
"Y'all, not trying to be funny or nothing, but, this is no place for a guy with a sensitive nose." Rider had his hands over his nose and mouth, a stake clamped under his armpit.
"This isn't his lair," Damali murmured. "He's too smart for that - we should have known. I don't smell or sense him either."
"Okay, then, let's go. I'm convinced - curiosity is satisfied. Let's go home now."
They walked out of the vault, this time not arguing with Rider's insistence that they get the hell out of there. As soon as they cleared the crypt, Rider hawked and spit again.
"Have you any idea what places like this do to an olfactory sensor?"
"Yeah, I do, but can you stop with the hawking? Dag, between the toilet seats left up all the time, and the spitting thing, eeew," Damali said, finally taking a real breath.
"Like I said, we all need some personal space." Rider shrugged. "We each have our little foibles, but did you smell anything? My nose is full of stinky shit."
"I didn't smell a hint of sulfur in there. Probably will be like that in the mansion, too - if it isn't a tourist stop, or sold to a family or something. Before my Dad hunted him, he might have kept residence here - but knowing Nuit, like all vamps, he moved his operation to high ground when he came back. I really should have thought about that part more."
"But, Mar said that Blood Music owned this property - so something might be up with it." Big Mike walked a distance away, got still, listened, and then shook his head.
"Yeah," Rider conceded. "I guess we had to check. We'd all look pretty stupid if we hadn't, and the bastard was so arrogant that he'd gone right back to the most obvious place - faking us out because we wouldn't think he'd be here. Fine, people. Let's do this fast."
After a short walk, they found the rental car and climbed into it again.
"He probably willed the mansion back to himself, so that he could still keep it, like all his other holdings." Damali's grip tightened on the wheel. "There's something about this place, though. It's nearby - I can feel it. Gut told me to try. I don't know." She finally sighed, turning the key in the ignition and pulling off slowly, thinking.
Big Mike nodded. "That's why they need helpers - people to do their dirty work for them, to file bogus birth and death certificates, move property around... Yeah, let's go check out the mansion and see who's home."
This time as they drove, there was no raucous laughter, no teasing, and no fooling around. Instinctively they all knew that going into a mansion was more dangerous than opening a vault during the day. In a house, there were many interconnecting rooms, plus places to get trapped with nowhere to run. Windows could be sealed against the light, and tunnels could lead anywhere, particularly darkness.
"Looks empty - no activity," Mike murmured as he listened for sounds at the property's perimeter.
Standing on a lush carpet of golf-course-quality grass, the team stared up at the impressive whitewashed, six-columned mansion that had two levels of sweeping verandas running the length of the house, which was complete with multiple wings and an arched carriage port. Mature trees bowed and swayed in the breeze, draping Spanish moss as though it were made of ladies curtseying with hoop skirts at a Krewe masquerade ball.
"Not bad for a freed black sugar plantation owner back in the day... but, why is it white? Thought Nuit wouldn't stand for it. They normally don't like that color," Damali said in a quiet, concerned voice.
"At some point, he obviously had to fit in," Rider said, staring at the mansion. "Couldn't be too blatant in an era that still burned people suspected of witchcraft in town squares, now could he? Ingenious bastard."
Damali and Mike's eyes followed Rider's line of vision. Strange symbols had been etched in the black wrought-iron railing in front of the verandas, and on the shutters. To the unaware, the designs would appear to be simple artistic license to add beauty to the home. Some of the subtle markings looked like a family crest woven into ornate curlicues, but there was no doubt in the team's mind that it represented a vampire crest for Nuit's territory. Money, power, fame - Nuit's trinity.
"Thought they couldn't deal with iron?" Big Mike muttered, still studying the house.
"That's witches, not vamps - get your lore right," Rider said.
"All right," Damali said in a weary tone, "Mike's bad. Let's go around back and do this fast."
"Summertime is ripe with thunderstorms, D," Big Mike said as they all looked up at the darkening clouds.
"You have got to be kidding me." Rider sniffed the air. "Now our flight could be delayed. If my nose wasn't all jacked up by the crypt I would have smelled rain coming. Damn!"
"It's summertime in the storm belt... floods here, too."
"Well, Mike, I just suddenly feel better!"
"C'mon, guys. We're wasting time."
On Damali's command, they crept to the back of the expansive three-level structure and found a small back window that led into a stone pantry at the ground floor. She nodded, and Big Mike pried the wooden door open, breaking the L-shaped iron latch. As they stepped into the dark terrain, she noted that the windows weren't covered, and Rider motioned to silently suggest that they take a quick look upstairs. If too much light were evident, that usually meant a house wouldn't be occupied by night-dwelling inhabitants - which also meant that they'd just broken into a private home.
Stealing up a narrow flight of brick-and-stone steps, they stood in awe of the fully furnished, very clean, functional interior. Damali, Mike, and Rider glanced around at the expensive period furniture, Damali noting that the place had the color scheme of New Orleans king cake - purple for justice, green for faith, gold for power. Stained glass was set in the main doors, which opened to a Gone with the Wind staircase. Light poured in everywhere. She shook her head, as did Rider and Big Mike. Nothing came up on their internal sensors. The vampires' helpers often inherited from vamps, or kept their establishments running in their absence, but this place had too much light for a vamp to fall through.
"I don't think so, either," Damali said quietly, keeping her voice to a near whisper. "Even in their lairs, Marlene said, if the houses are flooded with too much light, it's almost like a battery drain while they're in-state."
"Right. They usually block off a whole wing or a corridor, unless they do the old-fashioned graveyard burial thing." Rider nodded and sniffed, and then shrugged.
"I'm told, by reliable sources," Big Mike said with a wide grin, "that the dirt thing is passe. They do underground condos, or subbasements in mansions. You are talking Dracula era, before indoor plumbing."
"I will not venture to ask how you came about this deep knowledge," Rider said with a testy voice. "But, that is pertinent information. Let's roll."
"Wait a minute," Damali said. "Does the inside of this house look smaller than the outside did to you?"
Rider and Big Mike glanced around.
"Oh, shit." Rider sighed. "You know, if you're wrong, I believe breaking and entering is a felony worth up to five to ten years in the state pen - which will make the compound seem like a vacation paradise. You cannot just break into a real person's house and explain to the maid or butler that you came to exhume a body from the basement - at least you have to have a permit!"
"Yeah, I know," Damali said. "But if this was once his lair, and it has so much light now... Doesn't make sense. Why would he keep it? Yeah, he could have moved, but he's in the high-rent district in New Orleans, and this is mecca for the North American vamps. Hmmm."
With her hands out before her, she closed her eyes, walking and making a small circle the way Marlene had once shown her. "I don't feel any energy coming from the western side of the house."
"The sun sets in the west, their dawn. Makes sense to me, D." Big Mike shrugged and started walking. "Hit it from the sub-level - the ground floor... since they don't have formal basements because of the waterline. Let's see if there's a false wall down there."
"This is such a bad idea, folks," Rider complained as a strike of lightning flashed outside through the huge bay window of the parlor. "The storm just ate up daylight, and we're going into a known lair, trapped in a stone pantry - which in my mind is the same as a basement. I am not liking this."
Regardless of Rider's protest, the small group made their way back down into the pantry area, passed through several rooms, and began feeling the western wall.
"Look around this room," Damali said after a few minutes of their efforts and having made no headway. "No windows. We came in on the east side that had windows and the door Mike opened, went through a middle section," she said, motioning to the room they'd just been in, which had one teeny window. "Now, in this section, there's nothing in here but dust and old wine racks. The bottles on the shelves are filled. Something isn't right. I can feel it in my gut."
"Want me to light it up in here? I can do that," Big Mike said, "but we were trying to keep on the DL. The little bit of gray coming from the other room gives us cover - just like it was necessary to park the car out of sight. Understand?"
"Yeah, Mike, but I want to get behind one of these racks to check the wall."
Mike nodded, and moved forward.
"Hold up, and this time I'm not just making idle complaints," Rider said, his tone serious.
The group gave him their attention.
"You smell something, Rider?" Big Mike asked, studying him.
"I do, too," Damali said.
"You got blood in your nose, don't you? Rider, you always get this sick look when you do." Big Mike folded his huge arms over his chest.
Rider covered his mouth and pointed toward the bottles. "Take one in the other room so we can check it out before Mike lights a UV torch."
Working fast, Damali extracted a dusty bottle as the group paced quickly behind her. She held it up to the gray streaks of light and wiped off the dirty label; they all stared at the crest.
"Arrogant sonofabitch has his own private stock." Rider was about to spit, but changed his mind when Damali shook her head.
"Okay," Damali sighed, handing the bottle of black liquid to Big Mike. "Time to light a torch."
Rider groaned as the threesome again made their way into the darkness and stood back while Mike set down the bottle and unzipped his duffle bag. He produced a small battery-powered stage light and handed Rider and Damali each a long, concert light wand.
"Everybody hold a light and a stake," Mike murmured, passing out the equipment. "Just to be on the safe side. Might want a few drum anchors in your pockets, too."
They nodded as Mike flicked on a lamp and shined it against the bottles and stone wall and stared. As soon as the light hit the targeted area, the wall started giving way as though a crumbling illusion. The center of the solid mass simply burned where the lamp first struck it and peeled back. It was like watching a photo catch flame in an ashtray, the middle of it smolder, then blacken, and then curl toward the edges of the frame to reveal a new image.
"Rider, man, what is this?"
"The light," Damali whispered. "The light is burning away the illusion!"
Stepping back fast, Damali's light wand inadvertently touched the floor, which also started vanishing from the point by her boot where her wand had connected with it, creating a cavern that began swallowing her feet. She immediately scrambled, trying not to drop into the yawning opening. Rider yanked Big Mike by his shirt to fall against the eastern wall, but wherever their lights fell seemed to make solid structure evaporate.
The floor was disintegrating so fast that she lost her balance. "Hit the lights!" she yelled as her wand fell into the opening pit around her, along with the duffle bag and some of the unpacked stakes. Floor space kept edging away from her and the team, and she caught herself from dropping into the abyss by holding onto Rider's legs while he and Mike scrambled to anchor themselves to the dissolving door frame.
With one hand, Mike was able to switch off the bright lamp and grab onto the wood frame with other. Rider's wand had been swallowed beneath him. He was clinging to Mike's waist for dear life, as Damali precariously dangled by his boot.
"Hang on, Damali!" Rider yelled. "Pull up on my leg, sweetheart, then take my hand. Mike, move back, slow and easy. Get us out of this, and I'll never rib you about being a big, lurchy motherfucker again! Pull!"
She wrapped her arms around Rider's boot and pressed her face against his pant leg. She could hear Mike's grunts of exertion as he used his raw strength to draw her out of the hole, using Rider as a human rope. Dirt and rock bit into her forearms, scraping her skin, but she could feel progress - then something grabbed hold of her legs.
"Something's got me! Hurry," she yelled. "I can't shake it!"
"If you're scratched, they smell blood, baby - give me your hand!"
Kicking and twisting, but trying not to lose her grasp on Rider, she could feel icy, sharp fingers snatching at her legs. Panic made her struggle wildly at first, hindering Rider's efforts. Then she stopped fighting so he wouldn't lose his grip on her hand, and she tried to keep her body still for a moment to also make the thing about her legs grow confident. She needed to trap it against her to use its own position against it. Her lips murmured a prayer. She let one get a good hold on her legs as the snakelike thing slithered between them. Damali snapped her calves shut, bent her knees, and forcefully brought her shins and the creature's snake-like head forward against the jagged cavern wall.
Immediately, whatever had her dropped away, and she used her remaining strength to push her boots against the wall to climb to safety up Rider's leg.
"We're outta here," she said, panting.
"No argument," Rider said.
"I think we found the lair, li'l sis. I'm good if you are. Let's roll."
"Roger that," Rider said, coughing from the dust that had been kicked up in the struggle, as they all stood and began to run.
They bolted to the adjoining room, and then fled through the next, until they were outside panting and running in the torrential storm, leaving snarling sounds behind them.
"Ain't got nothin' to sweep the car," Mike said, out of breath as they approached it. "Could be infested - the cloud cover and rain don't leave much light."
"Fuck it, dude," Rider said, huffing air. "We're in the car, and we motor!"
"Some things gotta be addressed the old-fashioned way. If it's infested, we kick its ass." Damali flung a car door open and jumped in, brandishing drum anchors as a weapon.
The others jumped in behind her, and they all peered around the car interior as she started the ignition, shifted into gear, and pulled out.
"The flight is going to be delayed, judging by the weather."
Big Mike nodded his agreement to her observation, but was clearly still too charged to speak.
"We're not doing New Orleans in a thunderstorm, at night, after opening a lair with no weapons. That's out. Don't even consider it."
"All right, Rider. Suggestions, then?" Damali glanced at him hard, and kept driving.
"We're in Lake Ponchartrain - which ain't far from New Orleans Lakefront Airport ," Rider said slowly. "I've got an old buddy from 'Nam who's out of his natural mind, and he'd fly us in a small charter, direct to Dallas where we can connect to get to LAX... if the storm dies down a little. He's insane, which is no more than what we just did."
"In a storm, Rider?" Damali shook her head. "I'd feel a lot better in a jumbo seven-forty-seven. Okay?"
"Oh, so now the lady is concerned about the principles of safety. Give me a break. A floor just dropped out from under us with Hell below it, and you are worried about crashing in a storm? I would think that would be the least of your worries, Madame huntress."
"He's got a point, D... By the way," Big Mike said in a very quiet voice, "you nicked?"
"No," she snapped. "But thanks for asking." She softened her voice and patted Big Mike's arm. "Thanks for the bail out. They were demons. Not vamps. Had to be. Vamps deliver a bite when they attack. Plus, Mar did say that she only thought demons had taken over Nuit's old lair - guess she was right? Just like she and her team had found years ago."
"Somehow, li'l sis, that does not make me feel better."
She continued to rub Big Mike's arm. "I know. But now you sound like Rider." She tried to chuckle unsuccessfully. "Shit..."
"Wait," Rider said, his tone slow and cautious. "Demons do not guard vampire lairs. In fact, the two species are in direct opposition to one another - will try to eradicate each other on sight." He sat back and wiped the streams of water off his face. "Then why would Blood Music, known to be owned by vamps, still have ownership of what we've confirmed to be, the hard way, a demon portal?"
Everyone looked at Rider, and he ran his fingers through his drenched hair. "If demons had somehow jacked this place from him years ago when he got staked, that I could accept. But the fact that he still owns it today makes me wonder. Something fishy is going on."
Damali turned up the defrost blowers in the car and cleaned the window with her fingers, making a small circle so she could see to drive. The comment stilled her, and she let it roll around in her mind as she wiped water from her eyes with the back of her hand. She allowed Rider's statement to sit with her for a while before she spoke. "That's just it. Marlene told us my father got bitten, and my mother went after him. Then," Damali said in a sad, far-off tone, "my mother staked herself to keep herself from one night going after me."
The interior of the car was so quiet that only the blowers made a sound. Hard rain pelted the vehicle, its metallic drumbeat fusing with the swish of the tires against the wet road. Occasional traffic crept by, throwing a rush of water against the rental car.
"Nobody ever staked Nuit," Damali finally murmured. "When Marlene's team learned about my mother's intent to cast a spell and came to the mansion, they used a counter-spell on him and he vanished. A demon-ridding spell... because that's what they thought he was. But they never found the vampire that had bitten my parents. They assumed that what had attacked my parents had been just one of New Orleans' regulars, a demon - not vamp, and moved me and their team to Gullah country in South Carolina. Marlene didn't suspect Nuit was a vamp until he came for, and turned, Raven."
"If demons are guarding Nuit's entrance to his lair while he's not in it, then this thing is real big." Rider glanced at Damali and Mike, and rubbed his hand over his jaw.
"Right," Mike chimed in.
"My point from the get-go."
Insatiable hunger propelled him up off the black, silk-covered futon. Carlos sat up and glanced around the pitch-dark of the bedroom he'd just acquired. He stretched then yawned, regaining his orientation. Night two - now what?
First order of business was to take a leak and then bust a grub. Then he remembered and slowly stood.
"You didn't eat enough your first night," a voice in the shadows hissed.
Carlos started, his night vision sharpening. He then relaxed when he saw the messenger's hooded robe and red eyes.
"Did you bring the maps?" Carlos walked across the marble appointed room, searching in the old Dominican's closet for something to wear.
"Yessss..." the courier hissed again. "On the nightstand. Once you read them, I suggest you burn them. Too precious. Could fall into the wrong hands. Be quick. We have also sent your clothes."
"Good," Carlos said, casually. "The old Dominican didn't have much taste in rags, and was shorter than me by half a foot." Ignoring the entity, he walked into the vault-like closet and found a pair of black leather pants, a black silk shirt, and a pair of black alligator boots. He took his time, actually enjoying the impatience he sensed from the messenger who hovered just outside the closet door.
"We have been concerned," it said when Carlos came back out of the closet. "We lost contact, and the Vampire Council wants assurances that you have located the Neteru and haven't been compromised. And... there was a registration of the loss of one second-generation female vampire and eleven male thirds last night, before we lost a don... thirteen in all. That is a lot of activity. As I said, a concern."
"My mission was to break Nuit's forces - reason enough for the high number of vampire kills."
The entity nodded. "Impressive... I will duly communicate your progress in that regard."
"Tell them not to get in my way. I'm hooking up a smooth strategy here topside."
"They need to be informed of some of the more intricate aspects. I am sure you understand."
"C'mere," Carlos ordered. Hunger was making him lose patience with this courier, but he allowed the disgusting creature near him. "Take this scent back to the council. Tell them that I was on sensory overload. Now, I need to eat."
The two gleaming eyes inside the robe momentarily disappeared and then flashed again. Carlos could only assume that the thing had closed its eyes, when it nodded and emitted something resembling a sigh.
"They will be very pleased. I will courier your response, and this very special demonstration of loyalty. Hunt well, tonight."
As soon as the entity vanished, Carlos began dressing, and then stopped - realizing that if he wanted to shower and wanted to dress, all he had to do was think about it. He laughed, and quickly dispensed with the task. Almost immediately, an awful clawing sensation began burning his insides.
"Oh, shit," he murmured into the quiet. If he didn't eat, any extra resources he used like projection or shape-shifting, even movement would steadily increase his hunger and sap his strength. He would only be strong when he fed. "Sonofabitch!"
Beginning to panic, he walked across the room, opened the door, and ascended the stairs. Maybe, just maybe. He made his way to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and stared at the food. Had to be something for any of the human helpers that kept the house. Sniffing the lunch meat, he cautiously bit into a piece of sliced ham. An acidic taste immediately filled his mouth, making him wretch and heave bile into the sink. "Damn it!"
The exertion had made his hands tremble. He had the shakes? This was bullshit! A new level of panic ripped through him, and he ran from room to room in the four thousand square feet of the first floor. The gaudy gold fixtures, the gleaming red marble, the velvet and gold furniture - everything the color of ruby red made him want to holler. He tore around the corner and rushed up a spiral marble staircase, searching room by room for thirteen rooms for anything in the house that might take away the pain. He could smell it. Blood was in the house. He stopped moving, forcing himself to be still and concentrate.
Sensing his environment with his mind, he roved over every inch of the lair site. Of course. The vault. Tearing back down the steps, he dashed through the house, and back to the hidden black marble stairs that opened behind the false fireplace in the den. He almost tumbled down the steps; he couldn't get there fast enough. Once in the bedroom, he spun around and saw openings to other rooms.
He passed a sunken living room with all-black leather appointments. He stood in the middle of the room, quickly glancing at the wall stereo system, HDTV, art - was the thing that would quench his hunger in a safe? It was there, so close, but behind what? Again he summoned calm and the scent wafted from deeper within the underground chamber. He passed several more rooms and found of all things a kitchen - with a walk-in freezer. Half afraid to open it, the hunger made him reach out his hand and pull the heavy black lever on the black matte-finished appliance. Sections of human bodies hung from hooks and occupied racks. Carlos slammed the door, and pressed his back against it. Oh shit... what had he done? He wiped his hand over his mouth. He was drooling.
"Okay, okay, okay, man," he whispered to himself, walking in a circle. "You can tough this out. One more night, maybe two." All he had to do was make a choice, and one way or another the pain would stop and he'd be able to get to Nuit. But he was not going out like this. Eating bodies like a freak? Oh, hell no!
Another intense convulsion stabbed at his intestines, and he began to move in a serpentine resistance to the mere thought of denying himself the sustenance he needed. But he smelled blood - not just meat. Saliva was building in his mouth. Even his sight was dimming. He leaned over the sink and dry heaved again, and turned on the tap to splash his face with cold water - and hit ruby gold. The tap ran blood.
He drank from his hands, but he couldn't get enough of it down his throat fast enough. He turned his head, putting his mouth under the faucet - and he stayed there until he was so gorged that he could barely breathe. He came away from the sink, wiping his face on a crimson towel, and then burped.
Perplexed, curiosity made him bend to look under the sink. A fresh tank, like a spring-water cooler, gurgled and bubbled from the forced siphon. Deep. Nuit had probably ordered it as a gift to repay him for the Neteru sample. Cool. Made sense. Had to keep him fed to keep him on the Neteru's trail. Yeah, fair exchange was no robbery.
Steadier now, he glanced around and spied a wine rack, immediately recognizing the crest on the dark glass. Carlos laughed out loud. "Private label? Get outta here!" A hundred questions slammed into his brain as he checked out his new environment more slowly. How did they keep the blood from clotting? How often did he have to eat? How did they bottle it? Then he became still. Who paid the price for this gift of life so they could live? He slowly approached a bottle and pulled it out of the rack.
How many kids... women... children... brothers... fathers... how many to make a good bottle?
Full, but far less exuberant about his find, Carlos slowly went to the upper levels of the house. He had work to do, and although he felt much restored, he was deeply disturbed. An aftertaste registered on the back of his tongue, and he stood in the middle of the palatial villa trying to figure out what it was. He closed his eyes. Anticoagulant. Carlos wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He needed answers. A small voice in his head told him to just ask.
The mental conversation was becoming more disturbing than his recent panic attack. It was as though he could understand this new life by instinct - then he remembered. The line retains the knowledge of the line. Now he knew why blood from the tap tasted different than when he'd drunk from Raven, and why he needed so much of it. A fresh kill was always better. It was more potent. He didn't need as much because it carried the adrenaline and hormones of the victim. So, if he raided a blood bank, or drank it out of the tap, he'd need three times as much.
This could not be happening. A kill a night... If he lived for years, the body count would add up to a personal war. Or, if he just fed off of multiple victims per night, but not enough to totally drain and kill them, they'd eventually get sick, finally die, and turn. Now the Vampire Council's policies made sense. If too many vampires were feeding topside, at any given time, and without population limitations, they'd wipe out the human food supply within a couple of years.
Carlos studied the wine rack. Discipline. Masters had discipline, and had access to fresh blood from willing human donors without siphoning it from a bite, in exchange for material gain. Carlos raked his fingers through his hair. People would put a needle in their arm, or even their momma's, for money.
The old vampires were ingenious. He was sure they also had emergency backup provisions.
Now he understood why the Vampire Council was so appalled by the number of humans Nuit had turned. With the demon influence, his mutated seconds mangled their victims - maiming, nearly destroying them. They ate as much as a master, and one bite could cause a turn - fucking up the vampire ecosystem. Yeah, he could dig it. He'd seen them at work.
Thoughts of his brother tore at him, as Alejandro's death became vivid to his mind's eye. He breathed out hard, feeling his face grow sticky and crusted with dried blood. He walked up the stairs and found a bathroom - deciding to wash up the old-fashioned way.
Coming out with a towel over his head, he went back down into the vault to find another black shirt - this time pulling out a sleeveless T-shirt. Damn, this was crazy. All right. Start again. He trudged back up the steps and went to the front door, but stopped and glanced down at the newspaper that had come through the slot.
A newspaper delivery at night? Interesting, but definitely a message. There was a black-and-white photo of his car in the woods with the door open and two suitcases on the ground plastered on the front page. Carefully he assessed the situation. He needed a plan - a new plan A, B, and C if the ones before it didn't pan out. He knew the vultures were circling and couldn't afford to have his resources jacked, even if he was supposedly dead. His mother and the rest of the family had to be taken care of no matter what.
It wasn't about just showing up at the police station one night with some long story about why he, of all people, had left a cool one-point-one mil sitting beside his car, and illegal firearms next to two butchered FBI agents. They'd lock his ass up and hold him without bail, if the cops didn't take him in the back room and shoot him first for doing one of their own - then he'd have to play dead and vaporize to escape, and the shit would get really ridiculous. Would send his mother and grandmother through more heartache. No. He had to lay low and somehow get this rap pinned on somebody else. Somebody else who was already dirty and the authorities would be all too happy to close the case on. The Dominican don fit the plan perfectly. Maybe he would call the cops to set up a meeting. He could propose a trade, information for immunity.
The maps! Carlos tucked the newspaper under his arm and hurried back downstairs, collected the maps, read them, and left them to burn in the fireplace. They immediately caught flame and turned to ash. Okay - now to search the Dominican's lair.