“What’s that lump?” Chris pointed to a pile of rags on the floor. It stirred.
“A woman,” Miriam said. “She’s been lying there since I got on the site ten minutes ago.” As soon as Miriam said it, I could make out her thin arms and legs, the curve of her breast and belly. The scrap of cloth over her wasn’t large enough to protect her from the cold. She shivered and whimpered.
“And Benjamin?” Matthew said, his eyes glued to the screen.
“He walked through the room and said something to her. Then he looked straight at the camera—and smiled.”
“Did he say anything else?” Matthew asked.
“Yes. ‘Hello, Miriam.’”
Chris leaned over Matthew’s shoulder and touched the computer’s trackpad. The image grew larger.
“There’s blood on the floor. And she’s chained to the wall.” Chris stared at me. “Who’s Benjamin?”
“My son.” Matthew’s glance flickered to Chris, then returned to the screen.
Chris crossed his arms over his chest and stared, unblinking, at the image.
Soft strains of music came out of the computer speakers. The woman shrank against the wall, her eyes wide.
“No,” she moaned. “Not again. Please. No.” She stared straight at the camera. “Help me.”
My hands flashed with colors, and the knots on my wrists burned. I felt a tingle, dull but unmistakable.
“She’s a witch. That woman is a witch.” I touched the screen. When I drew my finger away, a thin green thread was attached to the tip.
The thread snapped.
“Can she hear us?” I asked Matthew.
“No,” Matthew said grimly. “I don’t believe so. Benjamin wants me to listen to him.”
“No talking to our guests.” There was no sign of Matthew’s son, but I knew that cold voice. The woman instantly subsided, hugging her arms around her body.
Benjamin approached the camera until his face filled most of the screen. The woman was still visible over his shoulder. He’d staged this performance carefully.
“Another visitor has joined us—Matthew, no doubt. How clever of you to mask your location. And dear Miriam is still with us, I see.” Benjamin smiled again. No wonder Miriam was shaken. It was a horrifying sight: those curved lips and the dead eyes I remembered from Prague. Even after more than four centuries, Benjamin was recognizable as the man whom Rabbi Loew had called Herr Fuchs.
“How do you like my laboratory?” Benjamin’s arm swept the room. “Not as well equipped as yours, Matthew, but I don’t need much. Experience is really the best teacher. All I require is a cooperative research subject. And warmbloods are so much more revealing than animals.”
“Christ,” Matthew murmured.
“I’d hoped the next time we talked it would be to discuss my latest successful experiment. But things haven’t worked out quite as planned.” Benjamin turned his head, and his voice became menacing.
The music grew louder, and the woman on the floor moaned and tried to block her ears.
“She used to love Bach,” Benjamin reported with mock sadness. “The St. Matthew Passion in particular. I’m careful to play it whenever I take her. Now the witch becomes unaccountably distressed as soon as she hears the first strains.” He hummed along with the next bars of music.
“Does he mean what I think he means?” Sarah asked uneasily.
“Benjamin is repeatedly raping that woman,” Fernando said with barely controlled fury. It was the first time I’d seen the vampire beneath his easygoing façade.
“Why?” Chris asked. Before anyone could answer, Benjamin resumed.
“As soon as she shows signs of being pregnant, the music stops. It’s the witch’s reward for doing her job and pleasing me. Sometimes nature has other ideas, though.”
The implications of Benjamin’s words sank in. As in long-ago Jerusalem, this witch had to be a weaver. I covered my mouth as the bile rose.
The glint in Benjamin’s eye intensified. He adjusted the angle of the camera and zoomed in on the blood that stained the woman’s legs and the floor.
“Unfortunately, the witch miscarried.” Benjamin’s voice had the detachment of any scientist reporting his research findings. “It was the fourth month—the longest she’s been able to sustain a pregnancy. So far. My son impregnated her last December, but that time she miscarried in the eighth week.”
Matthew and I had conceived our first child in December, too. I’d miscarried early in that pregnancy, around the same time as Benjamin’s witch. I started to shake at this new connection between me and the woman on the floor. Matthew’s arm hooked around my hips, steadying me.
“I was so sure my ability to father a child was linked to the blood rage you gave me—a gift that I’ve shared with many of my own children. After the witch miscarried the first time, my sons and I tried impregnating daemons and humans without success. I concluded there must be some special reproductive affinity between vampires with blood rage and witches. But these failures mean I’ll have to reexamine my hypothesis.” Benjamin pulled a stool up to the camera and sat, oblivious to the growing agitation of the woman behind him. In the background the Bach continued to play.
“And there is another piece of information that I’ll also have to factor into my deliberations: your marriage. Has your new wife replaced Eleanor in your affections? Mad Juliette? Poor Celia? That fascinating witch I met in Prague?” Benjamin snapped his fingers as if trying to remember something.
“What was her name? Diana?”
Fernando hissed. Chris’s skin broke out in raised bumps. He stared at Fernando and stepped away.
“I’m told your new wife is a witch, too. Why don’t you ever share your ideas with me? You must know I’d understand.” Benjamin leaned closer as if sharing a confidence. “We’re both driven by the same things, after all: a lust for power, an unquenchable thirst for blood, a desire for revenge.”
The music reached a crescendo, and the woman began to rock back and forth in an attempt to soothe herself.
“I can’t help wondering how long you’ve known about the power in our blood. The witches surely knew. What other secret could possibly contain?” Benjamin paused as if waiting for an answer. “Not going to tell me, eh? Well, then. I have no choice but to go back to my own experiment.
Don’t worry. I’ll figure out how to breed this witch eventually—or kill her trying. Then I’ll look for a new witch. Maybe yours will suit.”
Benjamin smiled. I drew away from Matthew, not wanting him to sense my fear. But his expression told me that he knew.
“Bye for now.” Benjamin gave a jaunty wave. “Sometimes I let people watch me work, but I’m not in the mood for an audience today. I’ll be sure to let you know if anything interesting develops.
Meanwhile you might want to think about sharing what you know. It might save me from having to ask your wife.”
With that, Benjamin switched off the lens and the sound. It left a black screen, with the clock still ticking down the seconds in the corner.
“What are we going to do?” Miriam asked.
“Rescue that woman,” Matthew said, his fury evident.
“Benjamin wants you to rush into the open and expose yourself,” Fernando warned. “Your attack will have to be well planned and perfectly executed.”
“Fernando’s right,” Miriam said. “You can’t go after Benjamin until you’re sure you can destroy him. Otherwise you put Diana at risk.”
“That witch won’t survive much longer!” Matthew exclaimed.
“If you are hasty and fail to bring Benjamin to heel, he will simply take another and the nightmare will begin again for some other unsuspecting creature,” Fernando said, his hand clasped around Matthew’s arm.
“You’re right.” Matthew dragged his eyes away from the screen. “Can you warn Amira, Miriam?
She needs to know that Benjamin has one witch already and won’t hesitate to take another.”
“Amira isn’t a weaver. She wouldn’t be able to conceive Benjamin’s child,” I observed.
“I don’t think Benjamin knows about weavers. Yet.” Matthew rubbed at his jaw. “And I never considered that blood rage may also play a role in vampire-witch reproduction.”
“What’s a weaver?” Miriam and Chris said at the same moment. I opened my mouth to reply, but the slight shake of Matthew’s head made me close it again.
“I’ll tell you later, Miriam. Will you do what I asked?”
“Sure, Matthew,” Miriam agreed.
“Call me later and check in.” Matthew’s worried glance settled on me.
“Stifle Diana with your excessive attention if you must, but I don’t need a baby-sitter. Besides, I’ve got work to do.” Miriam hung up.
A second later Chris delivered a powerful uppercut to Matthew’s jaw. He followed it with a left hook. Matthew intercepted that blow with a raised palm.
“I took one punch, for Diana’s sake.” Matthew closed his fist around Chris’s clenched hand. “My wife does, after all, bring out the protective instincts in people. But don’t press your luck.”
Chris didn’t budge. Fernando sighed.
“Let it go, Roberts. You will not win a physical contest with a vampire.” Fernando put his hand on Chris’s shoulder, prepared to pull him away if necessary.
“If you let that bastard within fifty miles of Diana, you won’t see another sunrise—vampire or no vampire. Are we clear on that?” Chris demanded, his attention locked on Matthew.
“Crystal,” Matthew replied. Chris pulled his arm back, and Matthew released his fist.
“Nobody’s getting any more sleep tonight. Not after this,” Sarah said. “We need to talk. And lots of coffee—and don’t you dare use decaf, Diana. But first I’m going outside to have a cigarette, no matter what Fernando says.” Sarah marched out of the room. “See you in the kitchen,” she shot over her shoulder.
“Keep that site online. When Benjamin is turning on the camera, he might do or say something that will give his location away.” Matthew handed his laptop and the still-attached mobile to Fernando.
There was still nothing but a black screen and that horrible clock marking the passage of time. Matthew angled his head toward the door, and Fernando followed Sarah.
“So let me get this straight. Matthew’s Bad Seed is engaged in some down-home genetics research involving a hereditary condition, a kidnapped witch, and some half-baked ideas about eugenics.” Chris folded his arms over his chest. There were a few details missing, but he had sized up the situation in no time at all. “You left some important plot twists out of the fairy tale you told me yesterday, Diana.”
“She didn’t know about Benjamin’s scientific interests. None of us knew.” Matthew stood.
“You must have known that the Bad Seed was as crazy as a shit-house rat. He is your son.” Chris’s eyes narrowed. “According to him you both share this blood-rage thing. That means you’re both a danger to Diana.”
“I knew he was unstable, yes. And his name is Benjamin.” Matthew chose not to respond to the second half of Chris’s remarks.
“Unstable? The man is a f**king psychopath. He’s trying to engineer a master race of vampire-witches. So why isn’t the Bad—Benjamin locked up? That way he couldn’t kidnap and rape his way onto the roster of scientific madmen alongside Sims, Verschuer, Mengele, and Stanley.”
“Let’s go to the kitchen.” I urged them both in the direction of the stairs.
“After you,” Matthew murmured, putting his hand on the small of my back. Relieved by his easy acquiescence, I began my descent.
There was a thud, a muffled curse.
Chris was pinned against the door, Matthew’s hand wrapped around his windpipe.
“Based on the profanity that’s come out of your mouth in the past twenty-four hours, I can only conclude that you think of Diana as one of the guys.” Matthew gave me a warning look when I backed up to intervene. “She’s not. She’s my wife. I would appreciate it if you limited your vulgarity in her presence. Are we clear?”
“Crystal.” Chris looked at him with loathing.
“I’m glad to hear it.” Matthew was at my side in a flash, his hand once more on the dip in my spine where the shadowy firedrake had appeared. “Watch the stairs, mon coeur, ” he murmured.
When we reached the ground floor, I sneaked a backward glance at Chris. He was studying Matthew as though he were a strange new life-form—which I suppose he was. My heart sank. Matthew might have won the first few battles, but the war between my best friend and my husband was far from over.
By the time Sarah joined us in the kitchen, her hair exuded the scents of tobacco and the hop vine that was planted against the porch railings. I waved my hand in front of my nose—cigarette smoke was one of the few things that still triggered nausea this late in my pregnancy—and made coffee. When it was ready, I poured the pot’s steaming contents into mugs for Sarah, Chris, and Fernando. Matthew and I stuck to ordinary water. Chris was the first to break the silence.
“So, Matthew, you and Dr. Shephard have been studying vampire genetics for decades in an effort to understand blood rage.”
“Matthew knew Darwin. He’s been studying creature origins and evolution for more than a few decades.” I wasn’t going to tell Chris how much more, but I didn’t want him to be blindsided by Matthew’s age, as I had been.