Some Slick Continental Dude

[Thanks to KevinT for help with the French!]

I got in the cab.

My suit was immaculate, my makeup as perfect as if I were testifying before Congress or keynoting a professional conference. War paint, as it were. My haircut was not perfect: a couple of weeks past its prime. Normally I wouldn't care; today it was important.

My hands were shaking, but my voice, when I gave the driver the address, was steady.

Good.

It was a bright, sunny morning. Early June is a nice time to visit Chicago. The sidewalks weren't crowded yet; people walked briskly but not frantically, some of them obviously tourists enjoying the day, snapping photos of landmarks, sipping coffee.

I hadn't had any this morning. If I made it till lunchtime, I'd have some then.

But if this was to be my last day, it was a good one to go out with. And this was worth doing, and I owed it to Julia, and to myself.

I felt my pulse speeding up, and I took some deep, slow breaths.

Too soon, the cab pulled up to the curb. I paid, with a generous tip, and faced my destination.

Google Street View hadn't done it justice.

The Coiffure Cup (what is it with hair salons and stupid puns?) was bright, glossy, hip, trendy; everything I wasn't. An alluring smell of coffee wafted out as I opened the door, and my stomach growled in spite of my nervousness. Music pulsed through the room, insistent but not too loud for conversation. I glanced around the place. The baristas were young, young enough to be my children if I'd had any. And of course, they were all beautifully groomed, thin and pretty… but their eyes were too alert, their expressions too varied and alive and real. Not what I'd thought, then… and for an instant the hope leaped in my heart that I'd been wrong, comically, ridiculously wrong, and this whole huge undertaking was going to fizzle out into a wasted weekend and the world's most expensive haircut. I gave my name to the receptionist, and she ushered me through a red curtain into the other half of the shop, saying "Tomás will be right with you."

And then I saw him. So much for hope. Somehow I locked my knees and stayed standing, but my first impulse was to kneel, and the second was to turn and run, just run and never stop running.

Beautiful. He was so beautiful. I'd somehow forgotten (I'd never forgotten) how beautiful they all are. I forced myself to look away, to look around, and again the scene didn't make sense. Customers smiling languidly, yes, but chatting with each other, reading magazines, not staring at him or out into space; the stylists cutting, shampooing, combing, but not mechanically. Relaxed, but not with that empty, timeless relaxation I had once—

I snapped myself out of the recollection, because he was moving towards me and in a second he'd put out a hand and I would have to stop myself from taking it. If I could.

"Madame Duplantier! Welcome to my little establishment. Please, tell me 'ow I can serve you today." His voice was a smooth, slightly husky baritone, his eyes smoky grey—not silver, not silver—and his French accent was as phony as all the rest of this façade. It made me angry despite my fear.

"Vous faites partie de la Cour Blanche," I said to him, so quietly that a normal man would have had to strain to hear it. My voice barely shook at all. "A quel jeu jouez-vous?"

He stopped dead still for just a second, and something—fear? surprise?—flicked over his face, but it was gone instantly, replaced by the same suave smile he'd had before.

"Une compatriote!" he said warmly. "Voulez-vous poursuivre cette conversation dans mon bureau?" His French was impeccable, Parisian. Of course it was. I could make my stand here, but the wrongness, the broken pattern, nagged at me, and I hesitated.

"S'il vous plaît?" he asked, gesturing to a little room off to the side, glass-walled, with a view of the entire shop. We'd be in full view there, of everyone in the place, but even so—

I'd come this far. I needed to be sure. I nodded, no longer trusting my voice.

He glanced to his left. "Cory, mon cher, take over for me. I will 'ave a little private chat with Madame."

The young black man he'd spoken to nodded and brushed past me on his way to the central, slightly raised platform that was evidently the star stylist's domain. His back was to me as he glanced at his boss, but I was sure that something passed between them.

Instead of stepping back and ushering me ahead of him, like a normal man would have, perhaps with a touch on my shoulder or the small of my back, the vampire stayed at arm's length and preceded me, making a point of turning his back to me as he went. He walked slowly, but he couldn't hide the predatory grace that was still making my instincts scream for me to run.

I followed him. God help me.

Inside the little glass office, he gestured me to a chair and took one himself, behind a chrome-and-frosted-glass desk. I had no doubt that he could be over the desk and across the intervening ten feet before I could begin to stand up. I sat, and clutched my adorable little purse to me like a lifeline, which was ironic in the extreme.

"And 'ow is dear Julia?" he asked me.

"She can't stop talking about you," I said. "I decided I should see for myself what kind of… magic you do here. She let me take her appointment."

He nodded. "And did you per'aps find that surprising?"

"No," I said. "I assumed you told her to."

"As it 'appens, I did not," he said. "I am quite satisfied with my clientele."

I looked at him obliquely, sidelong, in short glances only. That was bad enough.

"She's my student," I said. "I'm concerned for her."

"Because you know what I am," he said. The accent was gone.

"I thought I did. No. You are. What I can't figure out is—"

"Why she's not enthralled?"

"Yes."

"I don't do that," he said.

"But you're feeding on them," I said. I was still trying to make it make sense, and trying to shut up the part of me that was shrieking but then but then…!

"Just barely," he said, and he sounded… I couldn't tell. Not superior, not triumphant, not angry. "I have a lot of clients. Only a little contact with each of them."

"They're not… they're not addicted."

"No. I'm careful. Every few appointments, I hand them off to one of the others. Let them have a little breathing space." His expression became harder. "So. If you'd found what you expected to find, what were you planning to do about it?"

I looked through the glass wall at the roomful of innocent bystanders. "Nothing that would hurt them," I said. I looked him in the face for the first time since I'd followed him into his lair. "Are you going to let me leave?"

He leaned back in his chair. "Why shouldn't I?" he said. "You're no threat to me. I'm not breaking the law. Of course, you could try to start a panic. Fox News, perhaps?"

"Please. They'd think I'd been listening to too much Night Vale. If they knew what Night Vale was."

"Which brings up the interesting question of how you know about us." His gaze sharpened again, and I found I couldn't look away.

My voice shook as I said, "I was a thrall for almost three years."

I saw the glint of silver in his eyes, and I froze, my throat tight. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when he looked back at me they were grey again, but his expression was still intent, serious. "Where and when?" he asked, then held up a hand. "No. You don't have to answer that. Never mind."

"New Orleans," I whispered. "'79 to '82."

"Madeleine," he said.

Just the sound of that name, her name, and I was back there. Years of sweet drifting delirium that passed like minutes; days of agonized need and pain and longing that felt like centuries. And the long, slow, harsh awakening that I'd thought was done, until Julia had started gushing about her "amazing stylist".

Tomás, or whatever his name was, was watching me closely.

"It might interest you to know that she's dead," he said, and did I imagine the hint of vindictive satisfaction in his voice? No. It was in his face as well, and I felt a surge of gratitude that threatened to sway me towards him. With an effort, I managed to look away.

"Well," I said, and then I couldn't think of anything else to say.

"Feel free to sing 'Ding dong, the witch is dead,'" he said. "I assure you, I won't be offended."

"I'll pass, thanks," I said.

"How did you get out?" he asked. "If you don't mind my asking."

Oh. And I'd fooled myself into thinking I was putting only myself at risk. God forgive me.

"Actually," I said, my mouth dry, "I would prefer not to say." I wondered if I could get my hand into my purse before he could get to me.

"Don't," he said, and I froze. I know they can't read minds, so he was probably just reading my expression and body language. "I won't force you," he continued. "You can leave right now and I'll stay in this chair until you're gone."

I nodded, but I didn't move to stand up. Couldn't. It was a familiar feeling, almost a relief, after so long.

"May I show you something?" he asked quietly.

I nodded again. I couldn't, couldn't…

"Martha," he said gently. "You can say no."

"No," I breathed, black humor warring with blacker despair. "I really can't."

There was a silent pause, and then, "It will pass," he said, and I couldn't help but believe him.

He slid open a drawer in his desk and pulled something out of it, stood slowly and approached me. I kept my head down, and saw spots appear on the elegant pale-green silk of my skirt. Tears, I realized dimly. I closed my eyes on my humiliation, my failure, and waited.

I heard the slight rustle as he crouched beside me and I tensed, waiting for his touch, but it didn't come. He moved away again and I opened my eyes to see two photographs lying in my lap.

Two young women, both dark-haired and fair-skinned. One looked a lot like him; they had the same grey eyes and lustrous, wavy hair. She appeared to be in her teens. The other was older, perhaps in her mid-twenties; dark-eyed and smiling and just a little too dreamy-looking.

"The younger one is my sister," he said. "She fell in love, and was loved in return, before her Hunger awakened; she's mortal now."

I swallowed hard. I had never heard of such a thing. "The other one?" I asked. My voice was cracked and weak.

"That's Justine. My partner. My lover. She was a thrall when we met. Not now."

I closed my eyes again, clenched my teeth against a sob. No. That was not possible. To them, we were only food. There could never—I was shaking my head harder and harder, and my tears were flowing in earnest now.

"I'll have my assistant escort you home," he said, still in that gentle voice. "Most of them don't know, but Cory does. There are some people you should be in touch with, who can offer you support and protection if you ever have the misfortune to come to the family's attention. I would prefer that you not tell anyone about me, but you have my word that I will not interfere with you in any way."

I sat, and shook, and wept, and when sweet young Cory came to lead me away I didn't look back, and I didn't speak.

Julia is fine. Her residency at Mt. Sinai starts in August. She told me with a laugh that she didn't know what she'd do without Tomás, but he'd recommended a dozen top hairdressers in New York.

Cory emails me once a week to be sure I'm all right. He came to Minneapolis a month after we met, bringing a peculiar but brilliant young M.E. named Waldo Butters. Waldo nearly exploded with the opportunity to talk to another medical professional about the things he'd seen; we stayed up till four a.m. and both fell asleep at my kitchen table. He's planning to come again in a few weeks. Waldo and Cory put me in touch with the Paranet, and my world has just kept getting stranger, but most of the time I'm fine.

Only sometimes a face, or a voice, or the smell of coffee will hit me just right, and I have to go somewhere by myself until the shaking stops and I can pretend to be free.

I won't go back.

I'll never stop wanting to.