Four hundred years and nothing had changed, at least not when it came to human behavior. The modern surroundings were often better, for most of these trysts came in air-conditioned apartments rather than the barn lofts that had been popular when he had been turned, but Josef had seen it all play out before, the desire for revenge, the jealousy and hatred that prompted rivalries, the ambition to make someone else suffer for your humiliation or abandonment. But for as much violence and hatred as he had seen over the centuries of his existence, rarely had he known any human with quite as much bloodlust as Brian imbibed. Blair had told him just enough that he had become a natural suspect from the beginning, a willing participant in the events that had unfolded over the last several days.
The drive over had been full of careful considerations, of determining just how the situation was to be approached, of how much fear of death and damnation should be put into someone who so openly had engaged in such brutally murderous behavior. It was not merely Brian, for there were obviously many of them, at least a half dozen who had found Tervain and paid him to deal with their former girlfriends, never realizing what they were setting into motion. And eventually, most of them would be dealt with, but there was something personal in approaching Brian, for without his intervention and influence, Blair would have never stumbled into that alley. She would have never known the horrors that had plagued her over the weekend, or watched her friend die before her very eyes. She would have never known about him.
Life continued as normal in the neighborhood that housed the apartment buildings where Brian so comfortably resided. There was a block party going on in the lower level as Josef climbed the stairs, drawing the attention of all the girls on their way up or down. Lustful eyes followed him the length of the way, curious about the well-dressed figure that had emerged into their midst just long enough to create tension. He knew Brian was among the throng and did not bother looking for him, instead ducking out a window when he knew no one was watching and leaping across to the balcony outside the man's apartment. Someone thought to have noticed him on the lawn below, but he moved so quickly that she thought it a mere indication that she'd had too much to drink as she turned back to her friends.
The young man that came along the corridor with his arm wrapped around a particularly friendly blonde fitted his key without thought into the lock. He did not expect anything out of the ordinary. He had no reason to. They entered and he kicked the door shut with his foot, wrapping her in his arms as their lips met hotly, her fingers sliding his jacket from his shoulders. She was soft in his embrace, warm, the taste of brandy still on her lips. Josef could sense their intensity from across the room, the yearning both of them felt for one another, the desire to be wanted as much as they needed to be loved. It would have caused him to roll his eyes if he had not been so annoyed. Giving them a few seconds more of blissful ignorance of being observed, he reached across and turned the light on above the bar.
Startled, they drew their heads back and stared at him in open astonishment, the woman curious at his appearance and her companion irritated at the interruption. There was something hypnotic about him, in the sharp angles of his features and the intensity of his brownish green eyes. His presence was overwhelming once it was noticed, overpowering the room with an immense feeling of importance despite the fact that it was an unwanted intrusion. Beneath the bar was an impressive collection of expensive champagne flutes. Josef lifted one them and studied it in the light, marveling at how it glinted in so many faint colors beneath the delicate touch of his hand.
"You really do surprise me, Brian," he remarked with absolute calm. "I came here anticipating a general lack of class, given what others have told me about you, but you have surprisingly decent taste for a graduate. I have not seen such magnificent crystal in… two hundred years?" The casual nature of the last remark brought instant recognition into the man's eyes. The anger that come in a rush at finding him in the apartment cooled almost instantly, replaced with a trace of fear and mistrust. It was clear that he had grasped what he was up against, even if he did not yet know the reason for this unexpected visit. Every muscle in his muscular body tensed, but he made no movement to indicate he was intimidated.
Cautiously, he inquired, "Who are you?"
Lining up the crystal flutes on the bar, all two dozen of them, shimmering in the soft light, Josef replied, "An acquaintance of one of your associates. I'm sure you remember him. European, speaks with a hint of a German accent, seems much older than he looks." He smiled as all the color drained from the young man's face. He looked as though he might be physically ill, incapable of forming a coherent response. What seemed like moments but was in reality a matter of seconds passed before he turned to his date and said, "Darling, would you mind waiting outside in the hall for just a moment? There's something this man and I must speak privately about."
It was clear that she was not pleased with being cast out into the hall, but she went without comment. Once the door closed behind her, Brian came forward with a sense of panic in his movements, turning anxious eyes on Josef who was still standing at the bar, his interest in the glasses rather than his companion. "Look, I don't know what you want from me, but I can pay you. I'll pay you a lot to leave me out of this."
"You're already involved."
Leaning against the edge of the marble top, Josef picked up one of the glasses and held it up to the light, watching it shimmer through the perfect edges. He was enjoying the panic in the young man's voice, the way his body temperature was rising, his heart beating faster with the fear pulsing through his veins. Humans were like venison; the more calm they were at the point of death, the better they tasted, but there was a certain sharpness to their adrenaline that was almost like a drug. He held out the glass over the floor and, his gaze never wavering from Brian's face, dropped it. It made a delightfully expensive sound when it shattered. His companion flinched.
"What do you want?" Brian begged as Josef picked up another champagne flute.
"Now that is an interesting question. What do I want?"
The glass slipped from his fingers and broke on the floor.
"There are just so many things I miss from the past."
Each sentence was punctuated with the sound of breaking glass.
"The massacres in Prague. Those were fun. The time I attended one of Dickens' lectures in London and dined out afterward. That was memorable. Oh, and then there's the time I tore someone limb from limb. He did deserve it, for setting my lover on fire. I thought I had seen it all, and then I came here. America, the land of opportunity. They might not know a damn thing about fine crystal, but they do know something about revenge. I might even be impressed if I weren't so infuriated."
Brian was backing away, afraid that once Josef ran out of champagne flutes he might start breaking other things. It was not such an irrational fear, for as the last one split into delicate glass fragments across the polished hardwood floor, Josef began moving toward him across the room. "What do I want?" he repeated, aware that his prey was backing into a corner. "What I want most is to have some fun. To taste the bloodlust again. You never have experienced anything like it, have you? No human can, for as hungry as they get, as insulted as they feel, as infuriated as they become, none of it ever comes near to that all-encompassing rage that flows through a vampire's veins. You can't have a proper massacre without bloodlust."
His eyes were clouding over, filling with the shimmering golden haze that came over him whenever he fed. It was the most terrifying thing most humans had ever seen. Brian had come to the last inch of space in the room and stopped, flinching as Josef brought his hand down hard on the wall beside him. Sweat was beginning to glisten on the young man's temples. He swallowed, his Adams apple bobbing as he whispered, "Please don't…"
"Don't what? Spatter you across these four walls? Leave you abandoned and choking on your own blood in some dark alley? Rip your throat out like you wanted Tervain to do to Blair? All because she insulted your pride, because you couldn't get her into bed with you? I have met some pathetic losers in my time, Brian, but you pretty much outrank them all. Whatever possessed you to set a monster like Tervain loose on an unsuspecting girl? Did you really think seeing her mangled body splashed across the front page of the newspaper was going to make you feel more like a man? I doubt it, but maybe seeing yours will bring her some peace of mind."
Gripping Brian hard by the collar, Josef sent him crashing through the window onto the balcony, broken glass tumbling down around him as he scrambled to his feet. He barely had time to respond before Josef's fingers were on his lapels and he was shoved up against the edge of the iron railing. There was so much noise and confusion on the floors below that no one took any notice of them. "I fell six stories tonight and lived," the vampire hissed through his gleaming white teeth. "Do you think you're that fortunate?"
Wide-eyed, the college boy stammered, "Please don't kill me."
There was no reason why he shouldn't, why he didn't just pitch Brian headfirst over the railing and have done with it, but that would have been too easy, too simple, too sudden. One brief instant and it would be over, crushed, demolished forever, when there was more suffering to be gathered from this incident, more nightmares to be created in the tormented mind of a man forced to constantly look over his shoulder, wondering when his number was up. There was no indecision involved, no hesitation, for Josef had never intended to kill him, just put an unholy fear into him. Someone had once told him that death should be a reward, not a punishment. He would let Brian live.
It was only a few hours till morning, but for once Josef looked forward to the coming of the dawn, for it meant these matters were at an end. He could return to his former life of convenience and security. There would be eventual justice for the mortals involved. Beth was smart enough that if he pointed her in the right direction, she would find something to stick to the men who had taken such ruthless revenge on their girlfriends. Carmilla had packed and left the house by the time he had returned. It was an unspoken agreement between them that he let her go without comment or objection, but nevertheless the house felt empty without her presence. Blair was gone as well. He had not really expected her to wait for him. It was relieving to live out his life without encumbrances, to return to his office late that afternoon to attend to the few business matters that demanded his attention.
The spacious room with its expensive furniture and dark paneling suited him, the extent of his phone calls indifferent after the hell of the last forty eight hours. He did not really expect to see Mick, but was unsurprised when his friend showed up shortly before closing time, removing his baseball cap to reveal slightly unruly dark hair and a pair of scrutinizing eyes. There was something deeply attractive about Mick, something that caused people to trust him without rhyme or reason. There was nothing macabre in his nature, nothing dangerous that he could not easily control, a feat that most vampires found challenging. People came frequently into his life and always left feeling as though he had helped them, as though he had brought them some hope or reassurance that the world was not as really dark as it seemed.
"I trust you're recovered after your staking," Josef remarked dryly as Mick prowled the office, looking out over the city that unfolded beneath them through the tinted windows. It was dark enough that some of the street lights were coming on throughout the valley, the sunset obscured by the rain that was finally coming in from the west. "You're fortunate he left you in the dumpster rather than taking you back to his little house of horrors. I understand he was particularly fond of bolt cutters."
Mick had a miraculous voice, soothing and quiet but always to the point. "You're certain he's dead?"
He glanced across at his companion as the first drain drops began to hit the window, painting the interior with a surreal series of shadows. Josef was residing in the chair behind his desk, propping up his head on one finger. There was no change to his tone as he responded, "Went up like a Jack-o-Lantern on Halloween." He liked Mick, even though he could be a bit stubborn at times about who and what he was. Mick wanted to pretend he was human, to avoid addressing the fact that he needed blood to survive, to pretend he did not wish every day that he had never been turned, that his ill-fated wedding night had ended differently than in tormented pain and suffering. The reassurance that he had witnessed Tervain's demise left them with little to say that did not involve Beth, and she was one topic Mick did his best to avoid. He wanted to deny there was not an avid sexual tension between them.
The rain was now coming down more persistently, trickling against the glass. Even though Mick did not thank him for saving his life, it was mutually understood between them as he left, his footsteps fading down the hall into the emptiness of the building. Most of his associates had gone home, closing down their offices for the evening, but Josef did not want to leave just yet. He didn't want to return to his empty house with so many thoughts swirling in his head. Standing before the window, he stared out into the impending darkness. It was peaceful to close out the world beyond the proximity of this room, to consider the weight that had lifted from his shoulders. And yet there was something missing.
He knew the moment she entered the room, her heels making not a sound on the thick carpet. Her scent was one of delicacy, the faintest hint of rose petals as she came up behind him. His face had been composed of utter seriousness but now relaxed into the faintest traces of a smile as she deliberately stepped in front of him, leaning against the cold glass in a deliberate attempt to block his panoramic view. Her beautiful eyes were rimmed in eyeliner, but even that could not make the look she gave him severe. "You ran out on me last night without an explanation," she said softly.
"Do you expect one now?"
He refrained from touching her, despite the fact that she was so near. Blair tilted her head as she looked at him, her dark hair sliding over her shoulder as she left an impression on the glass. It was steaming slightly around her, a reaction to her warm skin against the dropping temperature outdoors. Black fingernails found his lapel and drew him toward her, her lips hovering just beneath his as she whispered, "Not really. Something tells me you're not much for sharing your secrets." She was teasing him. He hadn't been teased in years. Women had given up on that tactic long ago, and he found it exhilarating that she was just clever enough to make use of it. He never moved, allowing her to breathe in the scent of his aftershave.
"I ran into Brian this morning."
"When he saw me, he practically flattened one of his professors running the other way. You didn't have anything to do with that, did you?"
Of course not. The words made it into his head but not to his mouth as he looked at her. She knew better than that. In fact, he could see just a trace of amusement in her beautiful eyes. The premise of an ice cream sundae and paid shopping spree at Bendell's could not have made her happier. Pulling away from the window, she stood so near to him that they were almost one in the shadow they cast across the far wall, and offered him her wrist. The motion shocked him, but he would have thought it absurd if she hadn't known, if she had not wondered how he managed to survive such a fall, how she was so inexplicably drawn to him where all others had failed. It had become apparent when he had fought Tervain what he was, what they both were, and yet she had come to him without fear, offering what she had to give.
His astonishment must have shown because it caused her to smile. "It's more obvious than you would think, Josef," she whispered. "You need me, don't you?" There was such assurance on her face. She was convinced that she was right, one of her more maddening traits. The rain was falling behind them, the haze in the room darkening. But it wasn't true.
"No, I don't need you."
It was as if she had been struck. Her enormous eyes changed shades as she stepped back from him. Hurt filled her face. She turned away from him and got several paces toward the door before he said her name. "Blair." No more and no less, but it was enough to cause her to stop. He was coming toward her and again she held out her hand, this time with more of a tremor as his fingers curled around it, lifting it to his lips. They caressed her skin, so soft and perfect, before he pulled her into a kiss. Her body pressed against his as he held her in his arms, his lips parting hers with increasing urgency as he felt relief flood through her.
He did not need her, or her blood, or the chaos that she brought into his life.
But he wanted her.
There was a difference.