Love Is a Burning Thing
Evan glanced automatically at the brushed metal clock that hung over the stainless steel sink. He gave the sauté pan on the stove a brisk shake and then levered out the chicken breasts. It was his best copy of the chicken vesuvio from Mangia, yet. Perfectly roasted pepper. Tart caper. He grinned in bated satisfaction down at his accomplishment.
Setting the pan aside, he brushed a hand through his short, dark hair and eyed the clock again as he put the plates on the table. With an economy of motion, he set out one wine glass. She preferred riesling. She was also fifteen minutes late, which set an unavoidable tension in his jaw. If she didn't arrive soon, everything would get cold. Reheating would take time, and the sauce would never be right the second time, anyway.
Evan sat where he could see the front door and interlaced his fingers. Only by the utter stillness of the house was he reminded of having left the hood fan on. He scowled at himself and got up to turn it off. Without the din, everything became peaceful. Calm. He let it permeate his bones as he stood alone on the tile floor. As soon as he called his daughter Katie down for dinner, there would be nothing related to silence. She got that, he thought absently, from her mother.
Melanie shoved the front door open with a sleigh bell of keys and flapping material. Her heels hit hard on the floor, and the soft briefcase she used for work thudded like a dead body into place by the wall. She tossed the door closed with a casual slam behind her and took off her overcoat with a whip and a huff.
"You wouldn't believe those jackasses!" Her voice carried clear to the back of the kitchen.
Evan grimaced slightly and then counseled his expression as he moved into the dining room. Melanie was taking off her shoes, one hand propped on the back of the couch.
"Half a percent! They're going to hassle me on this contract, which will make them millions, by the way, over half a fucking percent!" She gave her second high heel a toss and padded in Evan's direction. "Hey, babe."
"Hey." Instinctively, he steeled himself and gave her a short peck on the cheek as she breezed by. "I think I've finally got down that dish you liked," he said, turning to watch her sit.
"Chicken again?" She said, dropping into the chair.
He flinched inwardly and turned away to call upstairs. Within moments, Katie's footsteps rumbled down the staircase. She was small and blond and wild. And she insisted that she could play with her action figures and dolls without her Daddy standing around and watching. She scampered into her chair at the table, seemingly unnoticed by her mother.
"I mean, really," Melanie went on, her face highly animated, "who do they think they are? I don't make up prime rates. And I'm not the god damned money fairy! I work late, I answer all their stupid questions, dot every i, always take their phones calls that come in 10 minutes before the office closes. I have lived and breathed this merger for the last 5 months, and the best they can say is that they want another half percent?"
As he sat down, Evan gave his wife a sympathetic look. He slid Katie's plate over and started cutting her food, despite her pout of protest. Mel shook her head and glanced down at her plate long enough to cut off a piece of food, shove it in her mouth, and swallowed it half-chewed.
"And Dixon!" Mel's color rose as her face hardened. "That little shit is angling for my job." She stabbed an empty fork in Evan's direction. "No way in hell. No way in hell after all this work. After I helped him." She took another bite, chewed a few times, and then frowned down at her plate.
Evan caught the expression and froze.
"Needs more sauce," she declared, and she popped up from her seat.
Was there more sauce? There was. He was pretty sure there was.
A fervent, omni-directional hope crumpled at the sound of her voice.
"What . . . the hell . . . is this?"
He was in the kitchen instantly. Whether he knew it or not, he kept the butcherblock island between them and stood near the wall. Katie's green eyes stared at him from the dining room table. She pulled her shoulders in and went still.
"What's wrong?" he said in a voice a little too high and a little too airy—a voice his students would barely recognize.
Mel turned, wielding the metal spatula in her manicured hand. The fury in her eyes burned a hole into his skull. "What is this?" she said evenly.
"I know what it is!" Her fury erupted in a tearing shout.
She flung the implement to the floor.
"Are you stupid? Can't you read? This. . ." she shouted, lifting the pan he'd used, "is a 250 pan!" She slammed it down with a metallic crack. "All I ask. All I ask"—she opened a drawer sharply, sending items flying—"is that you"—drew out an orange plastic spatula—"don't fucking ruin every nice thing I buy!" She hurled the object at him like a dagger.
He flinched, and the spatula hit his raised hands.
"Is that too much?" she demanded.
He couldn't meet her eyes.
"No..." he whispered.
"No. Do you think I like 80 hour weeks! I do it so we can have a house, have nice things. So you can read your old books and muck around in dust! And you—" she said, jabbing a finger at him, her eyes blazing and face red and ugly with hate, "you don't even respect me enough to take care of what we have." If she saw the hurt look on his face, she ignored it, instead turning to pick up her dinner plate. "God damned useless," Melanie muttered to herself as she poured what was left of the sauce onto her plate.
Evan flexed his jaw, biting back anything he might have shouted at her in reply. Nearly shaking with pent rage, he turned on his heel and stalked out, his shoulders bunching painfully as he passed through the dining room heading for the front door.
Katie turned in her seat to watch him, but she was not fool enough to try asking any questions. Behind him, his wife slowed to set down her food before rushing forward.
"Where are you going?"
He pulled on his old leather jacket.
His voice was low when he answered, and he did not turn around. "Out to the library."
Mel crossed her arms. "You didn't eat your dinner."
He paused, his lip twisting into a sneer, a dangerous sign of anger that he smothered with a soft, white numbness. "You were right," he said evenly, dully. "It needed more sauce." He kept his eyes on the door handle as he reached for it, and he strained to listen for any movement from his wife, any sign that he should have known better than to turn his back on her. After a breath, when she said nothing, he pulled open the door.
"I'll be back by midnight," he muttered in response to her unasked question.
Out in the fresh air, he straightened and breathed deeply. It was a little after six, and the sky was still light enough that the street lamps hadn't all turned on yet. The cool breeze worked on his burning skin.
He should have remembered about the pans. He'd remember next time. Evan dug his hands into his pockets and started up the street for the Dundas West station. He was blessedly alone up Radford, touched only by the swirling air moving leaves and dust around his feet. The fingers of his left hand brushed idly over a small carving he kept in his jacket pocket. It was a smooth soapstone eagle from their trip to Uganda the year Mel was made partner—a reward for the both of them for the years of dedication it had taken.
She had been . . . content, bouncing around the savannah. The stress lines had faded. She slept better. She was kind.
It was his favorite memory.
Evan touched the bird's rounded beak and the regal slope of its head. He drew a deep breath and let out a sigh that sank to the marrow. A jacket of chainmail slipped over his shoulders, and the weight almost ground him to a halt with tiredness.
He sniffed angrily and squared his shoulders. Couples fight, he told himself, as he descended into the station. It's what they do. Happens to everyone.
He blinked back the tears in his eyes, the only evidence that something more than fighting might be wrong, and he dug in his other pocket for his subway pass. He found a space against the wall away from the other passengers and waited in silence. By the time the train arrived, he felt padded with a comfortable numbness, sure that contentment could be read in a laundry list of the details of his life. It all looked so perfect on paper. What more could a body want?
He found a seat in the corner of the car, away from anyone who might want to chat. Or smile. And he watched the lights in the tunnel pass by the window as they shuttled their way close to campus grounds.
The keys to the apartment lay heavy in one hand as Mike hovered just outside Vicki's door, balancing a pizza box on one arm. He held the key toward the lock, but stood frozen, a frown settling on his face. He hadn't always hesitated. Once upon a time, two mismatched toothbrushes even shared a chipped cup by the sink in the bathroom.
It seemed a lifetime ago. And one night of pain and comfort and the relief, like no other, of coming home, wasn't quite turning back time. It wasn't quite . . . anything. But hope. And a new wound bleeding affection that, God help him, he wasn't sorry for.
Mike stared at the woodgrain in front of his face, still holding the keys. His mouth twitched in indecision. Resignation. And he slipped the jingling cluster back into his pocket.
Instead, he knocked.
And scant moments later, the door opened, revealing a Vicki dressed down in a pair of sweats. Her streaky blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a style of no fuss and minimal effort. She gave him a bewildered smirk.
"Please tell me you haven't eaten," he said.
She waved him in and echoed in mock obedience, "I haven't eaten."
He cast a glance over his shoulder, trying to read her mood, as he made his way into the small living room. She followed close on his heels, drawn by the tantalizing aroma of tomato sauce and melted cheese.
Mike set the box down on the coffee table and lifted the top with a flourish.
"Square pizza?" Vicki arched a suspicious eyebrow as she lowered onto the couch.
"Sicilian," Mike corrected. "Toni Bulloni." He doffed his coat and tossed it on a chair.
"Oooh ho," she crowed. "Mama Celluci would be proud."
"You better believe it." He smiled broadly.
"How did you get this on a Friday?" Vicki lifted a piece out of the box almost reverently. It was the perfect temperature.
Blue eyes sparkled. "I have my ways," Mike purred.
She squinted at him as she tasted the first mouthful of thick, doughy crust and spiced sauce. As she let out a contented sigh, Mike leaned back into the sofa with a pleased grin.
"Wanna beer?" Vicki asked as she licked sauce from her fingers.
"Sure." Mike grinned as he watched her get up and cross the room. He shifted slightly to get a better view as she walked away. Even in sweats . . .
"Stop watching my ass," came a voice in mock annoyance.
Vicki opened the fridge and plucked out two bottles, hooking the bottlenecks between her fingers. They were the last two brews. The last two of anything, to be precise. Shopping came after rent.
She kicked the fridge door closed and angled a bottle in Mike's direction as she sat down. Mike dug out his keys and popped both bottletops, while Vicki sank purposefully into her seat and kicked back.
"So," she said, reaching for the bottle and chewing more of her slice. "What's the occasion?" Her tone was conversational and just the slightest bit cocky.
"No occasion. I closed three cases today . . . and Crowley is, for once, blessedly pleased."
"Was it that husband and wife one?"
"Poisoned by their son. Can you believe it? In the cookies he gave them for their anniversary." Mike shook his head while Vicki quirked an eyebrow. He took a sip of beer and settled back with a smile.
She watched him and grinned. "So, then everything's good . . ."
He looked almost surprised at the thought and started to slowly nod. "Well, if you don't count the fact that I think Dave is getting divorced. Again."
Vicki snorted indelicately. "I'm not sure I do."
Mike waved acquiescence.
She eyed him. Something just wasn't quite . . . right.
"So seriously. What's up?"
Mike looked over sharply. "Nothing's up."
"I am not!"
"You're always glib when you lie." Vicki set down her food, dusting her hands, and got to her feet so she could stare down at him.
"What, I can't bring you dinner?" He looked offended.
"You could. But you don't. What is it?"
"Nothing!" He flung his arms wide in a gesture of innocence, blue eyes gleaming.
She raked him up and down with an evaluating gaze. "You need help with a case?"
Wrong thing to say. His face shifted in an instant. Tight-lipped, he nearly sneered and rolled his head around to look at the walls and the floor before looking up into her face. "You always have to go there, don't you," Mike said in quick anger. "I know how to do my job, Vicki." He heaved himself to his feet and stalked away, tensing the muscles in his jaw.
"Mike . . ." Her voice was soft, all apology.
His shoulders sagged, and he turned.
"C'mon. This is me, I know it's something."
"There's nothing." More innocence.
She crossed her arms and set her feet. He mirrored the pose. And they glared at one another in the world's most boring game of chicken.
"This is stupid," Mike said at last, letting his arms fall. He turned away.
Vicki barely gloated. "Will you just tell me what it is, already?"
He stopped, closed his eyes, and ran a weary hand over his face. Like dragging an anchor, he made his way to the couch and flopped down. He stared up into her demanding, beautiful, heart wrenching eyes.
"What?" she said again.
"It's November," he sighed out.
November. She frowned. November, November. Not any anniversary she knew of. Not his birthday. Or hers. Not Molly's or Dylan's. November. She looked down at him, but he was drinking beer, being no help at all.
What happened in November?
She squinted and thought over years past. There had to be something that stood out. Something . . .
He couldn't possibly mean . . .
"The policeman's charity ball?" She laughed incredulously, even as he leveled a grim gaze her way. "You were going to ask me?"
"I was thinking about it," he shot back. "But you run a little hot and cold these days. Figured I'd test the waters." He bolted up to standing again, reddening at the sound of her chuckling. He reached for his coat. "Apparently I forgot it was winter."
Vicki managed to control her humor enough to speak. She reached to touch his arm. "Mike . . ."
He jerked away and pulled on his coat.
"Mike, come on. I hated those things when I was on the force. You know that."
He turned ever so slightly and cast a sorrowful look her way. "Yeah, I know," he said quietly. And it was true. She always bitched about going, about having to talk to brass she couldn't stand and pretend to care about Billy's little league team.
"So . . . then . . . why don't you ask Kate? I'm sure Detective Lam would love—"
"Because I don't want to ask Kate," he bit, with a flash of anger.
"Why, something wrong with her?"
"No! She's . . . perfectly friendly."
"Yeah, you know . . . nice to people. Likes to share her milk and cookies."
Vicki smirked. "I'm sure."
He shot her a look of venom and lost patience and started for the door.
Her eyes narrowed. "So, what. You just want to piss off Crowley, then? Because that's what'd happen."
"Yes, that's it exactly. I just love doing CPR on my career." He'd just made her case for her and it ground him to a halt. Mike pressed his eyes shut and controlled himself. "I just . . . I thought it would be a nice night out, okay?"
"Yeah, you hate it. I got that. Sorry I was thinking of asking," he said hotly. "Enjoy the pizza."
Vicki charged after him. "Mike! That's not what I was going to say!" She shouted down the hall after him. But he kept going, shaking his head until he was out of sight.
With a sigh, Vicki flung the door closed and turned around to look at the empty couch and still warm food. She should have just said yes. Crowley and her witch hunt be damned. Everything be damned!
Suddenly not hungry, Vicki got changed, tossing her sweats into a corner of her room with a restless vigor. Her nice quiet night at home clearly wasn't, anymore. And whatever she wanted, it wasn't . . . here. An irresistible wanderlust sent her out into the setting sun.
Aimless wandering brought Vicki first to Brendan's grove. It was quiet. Nearby. And full of a serenity born of the frequent ponderance of human minds seeking the stillness of a pond, the quiet dignity of a falling leaf. There were others who came to contemplate their course in the small close, she was sure, but she had never seen them. For a surety, her fellow votaries knew nothing of how the ground became consecrated. The spot where the young man lay secretly buried had grown over with fresh grass and looked, to every eye but Vicki's, like just a swath of forest floor.
The light was low and growing purple as Vicki sat herself on the fallen log that served as a bench and looked down her dark tunnel vision at her boots. She thought of Mike. Just . . . thought of him and felt a grin creep onto her face. Somehow, it was so easy when he wasn't there—making demands.
Except that he hadn't been. Not really.
She sighed and kicked the dirt. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and scrolled through her phonebook, stopped on Mike's number, stared at it until it was burned into her vision. But something hard, intractable, prideful, kept her from calling. He'd gloat, and then it would all start again, as wrong and stupid as the first time.
And then she nearly yelped when her phone started ringing, piercing the quiet forest with its unnatural clamor. She didn't check the screen as she answered.
A soft, warm voice answered, surrounded by a babbling brook of distant voices. "Vicki? Hey, it's Gordon."
She smiled. "Hey, yourself. What's up?"
"Remember when you said that I should invite you to my next gig?" He sounded sheepish.
"Yeah . . ." she replied, with a bemused grin.
"I forgot." She could practically picture the innocent, hopeful embarrassment on his sculpted, far too perfect face. "But we're on at 8 if you want to stop by the Devil's Advocate. Okay?"
Vicki laughed a little. "Okay."
"I'll save you a seat?" he said with a smile.
She smirked. "We'll see. It's . . ." One of those nights? Wasn't it always. Her tone must have given her away.
"I understand," his voice came to her over the phone, low but friendly. "But, I really would like you to see us, sometime. If you change your mind . . ." A hint of disappointment.
"I know where you'll be. And thanks, you know, for the invite."
"Of course. I'm sorry I forgot. I'll talk to you later?"
"Yeah, I'll talk to you later. Bye."
She clicked off the line and sat staring at the glow of the phone's screen. Crowds and lively music . . . she couldn't even imagine those things from the stillness of the grove. Maybe another day. Vicki slipped her phone back into her pocket and looked up as the last of the gloaming fell swiftly into darkness. She smirked as night fell and suddenly knew exactly where she wanted to be.
She could hear it as soon as the elevator doors swept open on their silent tracks. Music. Face alight with beautiful curiosity, Vicki snuck toward Henry's apartment. Piano music thrummed through the walls, muted, but enchanting. She placed a cupped hand against the smooth wood of the door and pressed her ear close, trying to grasp every nuance of this song she had never heard.
Guided by the tingling icicles of the high notes, falling like rain, and the quick steady chords, she saw in her mind's eye a city street. A fall night. Notes came spare at first, meandering steps down a lonely sidewalk. Then heavy chords and fluttering bass swirled into the air, driving the tempo faster.
The piano struck out sound. It spoke despair and dizzying radiant sadness, poignant unto sublime. Her breath caught as the music made a final rise and quickly tumbled to a final resounding chord.
Echoes of the chord still haunted the air when the door swung open. She straightened and looked at Henry's perfect face, bright in amusement. He held a rich, crisp, folded card in both hands and bent in an elegant bow as he extended it to her. Her name was written in a flourished script on the front.
She edged it open:
Please stop lurking in the hallway.
Her eyes flicked to meet his, which sparkled blue against his white shirt. "Very funny."
He smiled a broad and dimpled smile and stepped aside, waving her in.
"I didn't want to interrupt!" she protested, handing back the card.
A shocked little laugh escaped him. "Since when?"
She stopped her saunter and looked at him, locking eyes for a moment, long enough that she felt a lick of flame inside. The narrow space between them seemed suddenly nothing at all, and she quickly looked away. "Since when do you play the piano?" she asked, moving further into the apartment.
Henry moved silently at her side, keeping pace, and nudging closer until their arms touched. "Eighteen ninety," he said with a smile. "I saw it when I was packing my things."
Vicki turned slightly to gaze at him.
"I figured," he shrugged elegantly, "it was finally time."
With that, he drifted toward the piano that took up a good portion of the room near the window and slipped onto the bench. She kept her eyes on the easy way he moved through the world, with a dancer's grace. Here was beauty. Beauty offering her a coy, impish smile that was reason in itself to smile back. With a pleased look, his attention turned. He drew his hands over the satinwood of the cover in a warm caress and then lifted the keyboard lid with a fingertip. His young face became drawn in concentration.
"Érard was a passionate man," Henry said at last, striking a low note on the scale. He lifted his eyes. "They don't make them like this anymore. The bass is so much clearer. It has . . . voice."
"If you say so," Vicki grinned at his sincerity as she settled herself on the couch, an ebb of warm affection washing through her body.
He offered her an indulgent smile. "Sébastian spent years searching for just the right wood, the perfect grain. He wanted his instruments to be the best the world had ever known." He closed his eyes and struck the lowest key, sending a hum through the apartment like a low aching growl. It brought a smile to the vampire's lips.
Vicki smiled with him, a victim to infectious joy. "I guess he succeeded." She could still hear echoes of the song she had heard him playing with such exquisite emotion.
"Mm." Fitzroy opened his eyes and gazed at her. "I believe he did." He touched the wood grain. "After Sébastien died, his son, Gervais, was in need of capital to keep the business going. I was happily able to provide . . . It was the least I could do. A few years later, I came home to find Gervais at my door. With this. He wouldn't let me say no." A smile teased his lips.
His attention drifted back to the piano keys, and he started brushing his hands up and down the length of them searchingly. The ivory spoke its notes in memory, made subtle suggestions, countered by the ebony's sly remarks. He let them speak, and listened to the strong beating of Vicki's heart. Finally, his hands came to rest, and he looked over at his partner as she sat draped on his sofa. She lifted an eyebrow in reply.
And he studied her face as he tapped out the first few unmistakable notes of his muse's inspiration.
Vicki threw her head back and laughed. She laughed so rarely, the startling beauty of it nearly made him lose his place. But he played the first full bar effortlessly and was rewarded with a shimmering, almost embarrassed smile.
Vicki slid to her feet and joined him. She watched the strong muscles of his back stretch and bundle as he moved with the music, played with all his considerable heart and soul. The physicality of it was intoxicating. And despite herself, she wanted to join in—to share in the moment of joy and creation that was an existence unto itself, a singular event in time. So she waited. And much to both their surprise, in the next measure started to sing.
"He said son can you play me a memory. I'm not really sure how it goes. But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man's clothes." Vicki touched Henry's curly hair, then his shoulder, as she moved around him to the curve of the piano's form. "Oh, la la la, ditty dah. La la ditty dah. Dah dum." She met his wide, pleased eyes and had to sing over her smile.
She sang while he played, and together, they finished the song, Henry's playing bringing the moment to a calm, restive end. He dropped his hands to his lap.
"Just when I thought I couldn't be surprised." There was a warm and loving wonder in his tone.
Vicki shrugged and aimed her attention anywhere else. Singing was not something she did often. It took not so much talent, but courage, and the willingness to crack yourself open and feel. Even if all she felt was joy, it was too much. Too much risk. Too much to get used to.
"Vicki . . ." Henry said smoothly, coming around the piano, whisper-quiet. His hand drew down her arm as he came within a hair's breadth of pressing their bodies close. "I'd like you to try something," he said with a soft, slight smile.
She quirked an eyebrow and allowed him to take her hand, raising it between them. "And that would be?" she asked, eyes on where they touched.
He moved slowly, savoring. A thumb across her palm. His eyes fell closed as he drew in the scent of her skin, soap and pheromone. Pressed perfect lips against the tender, thin flesh of her wrist. Her pulse quickened. He felt it do so.
Suddenly, he had all her attention.
"Lie beneath the piano," he whispered.
She blinked. "What?" And jerked back out of his spell.
He let her hand slip from his and touched a lock of tawny hair near her cheek. Her confusion was delightful.
"Trust me?" he asked lightly.
She wavered for a moment, waiting to see if his fingers would touch her face. They didn't.
"Sure," she breathed unsteadily with a little shrug.
Fitzroy inclined his head to indicate the floor beneath the piano's soundboard. And he suppressed a laugh at Vicki's dubious expression as she crouched down and slid under. With the air of a maestro, he returned to his seat, settling himself, and warmed his hands on the keys for inspiration.
Vicki's face burned with embarrassment as she lay staring up at the bottom of the piano. If she was lucky, Henry wouldn't tell a soul. Chances were his sense of self-preservation would prevail. But still. She could just picture herself, legs sticking out into the apartment like some thoughtless girl had dropped a house on her. Mortifying.
She peered over at Henry's legs and feet and that, really, made the already ridiculous even worse. Self-conscious chuckles sputtered out, and she quickly crossed her arms over her chest, scowling more than was necessary.
"Am I just going to sit here or what?"
He made no reply.
And then the world shivered.
Evan's heart lifted as he drew closer to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. He'd spent a good deal of his graduate career in the stacks, burning through coffee and ballpoint pens. Lately, though, his visits had less to do with academic rigor. The stacks were quiet. They hired a student to man the desk during the new extended hours, and most of the time, that was the only other soul in the building.
The automatic doors swished open as Evan approached. For the briefest moment, he entertained the idea that the doors answered to him, responded to a thought cast like a spell, and obeyed the command of his presence. It was a pleasing, if foolish, fantasy. Still. His domain welcomed him. And it felt like coming home as he leaned his head back and peered up the empty central column of the library. The stacks hugged the walls for five floors, bordered by a walkway with glass and metal walls. The view went straight to the underside of the roof—a more industrial look than the contents of the building might suggest.
As Evan approached the stairway leading up to the first level, Lynnette looked up from her novel, though she didn't bother dropping her crossed feet from the desk.
"Hey, Dr. Ryerson," she said automatically.
"Ms. Montclair." He dipped his head as though tipping a hat. He glanced at the book in her hands. "Taking modern British?"
Her green eyes looked startled for a moment, and then she twisted to look at the book cover. The Buddha of Suburbia. The grin she offered held no humor. "Yeah. Everything is all about the minority experience in England. No white guys talking about the good old days. But, you know, I was thinking. If its all the minority experience, doesn't that make it the majority experience? A whole bunch of people who feel different have at least one thing common. Right?"
She peered at him and twisted her auburn hair around her finger.
Evan tried to keep his eyes from lingering on her pale, fine-boned hands, and then the cute pertness of her nose. He cleared his throat with an inward sneer and bubble of self-revulsion. Found something terribly interesting on the floor.
"I suppose that depends on why they each feel so isolated. Maybe . . . they have different reasons." Her face fell a little at his reply, and he hurried to cover. "But you do have a point, I mean. One that says as much about your how your professor designed the class as it does about the state of modern Britain."
The corners of Lynnette's mouth lifted. And Evan straightened, far too pleased at her pleasure and approving gaze.
"If you're planning to major," he stumbled on, encouragingly, "that's something you could try building a thesis around."
"You think so?" She perked and flashed him a smile.
Evan turned toward the stairs and away from her smile before he thought something he'd regret. "It's worth investigating," he said, adding, "I should let you get back to it."
Lynnette watched him trudge up the stairs, biting her lower lip in suppressed excitement. A thesis topic! Already! She hadn't even been trying! Confident that she was more of a genius than she'd anticipated, she snatched her bag to get a notebook and started jotting down her errant thoughts on the subject of all things reading.
The professor tried not to give her another thought. He ascended the staircase slowly and deliberately, dropping away reality a little further with each floor. He moved beyond the realms of husband and father, beyond bills and obligations, beyond students and teaching. At the top floor, he was simply a researcher, a seeker and a sponge for whom the only concerns were whether his interest was piqued and whether or not there was more. Hungers were simple and easily fed. Contentment a mere page turn away.
He had been working his way slowly through Medieval liturgical writings, making notes that could earn him an additional doctorate if he wanted. But he balked at turning his efforts toward such prideful ends. No degree could circumscribe his scholarship, no title speak for all that he'd invested and earned. And to reveal to the world what he had been up to, and for how long, was more truth than he was willing to air. So the notes piled up as the volumes passed under his careful hand, until all that remained was a plain-looking wooden box on the very bottom shelf. It bore no label.
That night, Evan went straight to the box.
In the cemetery stillness of the stacks, he wrapped his strong fingers around the metal hinge handles and hauled the box out of its resting place. Even in the impeccably cleaned library, there was a visible empty space left on the shelf where it had been—a combination dust ring and faded metal. The box was heavier than he'd imagined. Smaller than a trunk, the chest was more the size of a business traveler's overnight bag. Yet it weighed an unnatural amount. Rocks would have been lighter. And Evan eyed the burden sternly, with suspicion, as he heaved it toward one of the research alcoves.
Nearby, there was a door leading to the small study were he had practically taken up residence. It was a door he was allowed to close. And the relief he felt instantly upon doing so neared tragic. Nothing touched him here among his books, not even unpleasant thoughts. The door, sacred oak, cleansing and holy, locked worries away and let him breathe.
Evan set the box on the table in the study with a light grunt. The room was sparse, just a plain desk rescued from an old office, with a desk lamp at either corner, and a series of shelves up the wall that displayed sad trinkets purchased in a fit of interior decorating frenzy whose inspiration appeared to be Masterpiece Theater.
The professor pulled his notebook and pen from the bottom drawer of the desk and set them aside. In addition to storing his notebooks in the little room, he had also, one by one, started storing a small reference library of the books he seemed to need time and time again. Part of him felt proud at his efficiency. The other part glowered with haughty disapproval at his inability to manage anything on his own; even in his chosen field, doing work he adored, his best still left him lacking.
With care, Evan put slight pressure on the latch holding the lid on the box shut. The metal fittings all had a slightly pitted quality to them, though they were markedly free from rust and not cratered like old relics. The metal bands felt smooth but looked unevenly blackened. He couldn't guess, from appearance, how old the piece might be.
The swivel latch moved easily on its hinge, as though oiled. Evan wondered absently if sperm oil could last as long as this.
With a shrug, he lifted the lid, prepared for a fight or a horrible screaming of metal. He was disappointed. And as the anticipation crested and fell, he let out a slight huff. It gave up its treasures easily.
Those treasure, unsurprisingly, were books. The top one was closer to a bound manuscript than a book, being barely held together. With both hands, gentle as easing a baby up from rest, he lifted it from its long tomb. Careful not to touch the pages until he could determine their condition, he set the manuscript down close to the light. The manuscript might be from anywhere. Without looking inside, it was hard to tell. The cover was dark leather, non-descript. And, as it turned out, easily forgotten.
Evan Ryerson, professor of history, acolyte of literature, reached into the dark box for the next volume from antiquity and brushed his fingers against something warm. He frowned, and pulled one of the desk lamps closer. Under the new light, he could see the remaining two books. One looked . . . he leaned in a little closer . . . charred at the edges, blackened unto ash. For a moment, he mourned for the little book, trapped somewhere, holding onto its secrets against the maw of some deadly blaze.
It had valiantly survived its ordeal. And Evan felt honor-bound to hear it tell its tale. He reached for the small book a second time. Shock crossed his face when he found that it was, indeed, warm to the touch. The cover, despite its appearance, felt like living skin. He turned it over in his hands, stroking the impossible tome that was failing to leave black residue behind. He had to touch it—because it felt alive.
Instinct from a million years of evolution tossed up its snarling muzzle and howled. As deeply as he'd ever felt anything, he heard its rabid screaming and incoherent gibbering that wanted simply "away". It was a cry duly noted and duly dismissed.
It was a mere book, afterall. And while many people had been killed for books in the past, Professor Ryerson couldn't quite recall anyone being killed by one. Reason was well-assured. So Evan marveled and sat himself on the edge of the chair. Darkness seemed to pool around the book. Despite the ample light, he couldn't make out the writing pressed into the cover. It disappeared into shadow no matter how he held it up toward the lamp.
Frowning, Evan put the book on the desk and moved to pull each lamp closer. Satisfied that it was the best he could do, he sat down again and touched the edge of the cover with his finger. The scorched leather lifted easily. The pages, pristine, began to fan open with nary a crease nor a crackle. On their own, they fell open to a page of illustration like Evan had never seen. It was geometric in design, arabesque in complexity. Oranges dominated, like the vibrancy of fruit and warmth of sunrise. It was crossed and rippled with reds like running ink and shot with yellow. But more. More than the color was the way the image twisted in his vision, made his eyes cross. He got dizzy as it took on depth, falling into the page as though he could reach into a well of light. And it took on height. Evan leaned back, the swirls reaching for him, suggesting movement, dancing.
He blinked. And the painting seemed startled, caught moving and now freezing in disguise. The sensation of losing himself grew stronger, and he started to lurch toward the desk in an awkward fall, only to shake awake as from a dream. Evan shook his head and scowled at the queasy protestations of his stomach. With one hand, he quickly turned the page. Still, the impression of wrenching and dancing was with him, a motion born on the indelible luminosity of the image. It was unnatural in his memory. Uncanny, such that Evan shifted uncomfortably at the chill that ran down his spine and the clamminess that came over his hands.
He stared harder at the page he had turned to and tried to make out something intelligible. At first the text that filled the page was in a scrawling jagged hand. The quill that wrote them had left scratches and lines with harsh intent. The language was alien. He flipped the page. And out of a dream, the writing shifted, fading into the parchment and blooming back to the surface in new patterns. Cuneiform and Arabic, then something Evan guessed at being Hebrew before it boiled again into the page. He scanned the surface of the paper in stunned watchfulness as the book offered him letters of a form he recognized. And then they shifted over one another, blowing like dust through Romance tongues. One word remained the same among them. Xaphan. Xaphan. Slack-jawed and curling away at the impossibility of it, Evan swiped his hand at the book, flipping the cover closed before the pages could do more, show him more. Trembling with the horrible surety that he was going mad, he shoved away from the desk and darted for the far wall and a safe corner. His breath roared in his ears as he held himself rigid and defensive against what was, he had told himself, just a book. Flat, damp palms against the wall, he waited. Would it, could it move?
His heart beat a runner's pulse, and he swallowed hard, sure both that he was crazy and that he hadn't invented a moment of it. The book, the lamp, the table, all remained still and unthreatening as he edged out of his corner, wiping cold sweat from his brow. A timid hare on newly frozen snow, he sat on the very edge of the chair. The little book drew his eyes first, then his hands. He paused before making contact.
Xaphan. It sounded unfamiliar. He said it out loud experimentally and shook his head. Moistening his lips, he got up to check his small library and, frankly, get away. He had both an encyclopedic biography of church fathers and a Latin dictionary. After a few minutes of searching between them, he came up empty handed and drew furrows through his hair. Behind him, something moved.
He glanced around. The little book lay open on the table.
Fear crept fingers over his neck as he approached. And by the time he stood over it, staring down at the illustrated page, every hair on his body stood on edge.
It was a book. For God's sake, it was just a book! But instinct screamed wild canticles in his ears.
His eyes settled on the image, seemed stuck to its atrabilous patterns. The orange seared him, burned his retinas with its brilliance. The page sank in, enveloped, dropping in itself in a spiraling staircase that burned its way from unfathomable depths upwards. Up to the page surface and like a hologram above it.
Evan stared, his eyes ever widening.
Burned. The image on the page flickered as a fire—a cantrip alight. Like any fire, it burned, it needed, it ate and wanted out.
Evan felt his face flush as a blast of heat spewed impossibly from the open tome. It passed through him and touched a bound place in his chest that knew need. It was the place that stored rage in a knot, where it was safe and restrained and tame. The place Evan avoided at all costs. The place he tried to forget.
The warmth of the wave touched that place, and like flashpaper, it lit.
Evan jerked once and began to shake, eyes never blinking, never leaving the illumination. And from the tight concentration of anger and displaced disappointment struggled a sound from a beast, a feral roaring raw with want. Energy tore through his body with the anger, pulsing with a storm that made his limbs light.
How dare she. How dare she! She who should love and kiss and hold. Every unkind word, slap, and bitter insult became fuel. Unhappiness, betrayal, and an abiding hunger he hadn't known for itself rose up and slapped around him until he doubled over in pain and cried out.
A flash of Melanie, mid-scream, mid-throw, her face twisted in hate and violence. A flash of her, startled, horrified, fire whipping up her clothes in a twisting column. She screamed in abject anguish. Screamed in his anguish. And he grinned at the fantasy. It was only a fraction of a moment, only an inkling that she deserved to be punished, that he willed his justice done.
It was all that was necessary.
The image bound in the book expanded. It struggled against the bonds of paper and ink. Thrust once.
Roared and exploded, sending broken dried ink like confetti, like a spray of blood across the walls, the table, the professor. Evan fell back and staggering tripped over the chair. His body barely registered this new pain as he hit the floor. His mind's last coherent thought was the image of Melanie's face in terror and the feeling of a long hunger at last sated before all went dark.
Sound was sensation.
Vicki gasped as the full force of the song Henry began to play rubbed passionate palms against her skin. The tenor notes brushed her arms and breathed against her face. The melody was quick at first, like exploratory fingers. It touched high notes that buzzed in her teeth and sent sharp starlights down her spine.
But these, these were nothing compared to the bass notes that became her world. A dark storm of tone filled her lungs, shivering from the inside. Waves of a raging sea crashed in the hollow space of her belly and she squeezed her thighs against the unanticipated vibrations of pleasure. It moved through and under and around, permeating. All from the sound, she squirmed and flexed as Henry poured himself into the music. Into Chopin's Prelude in D Minor. Dark and violent, punctuated with brightness, a breathless unrelenting motion of song.
Barely able to breathe under the onslaught, Vicki shifted. The touch of the piano's strong voice was a match. As it made her shudder, it also made her burn. She needed . . . touch, sharing, feeling, and managed to open her eyes enough to crane a look, ludicrously, at Henry's legs, working behind the prison bars of the pedals.
Just . . . anything to make contact.
He hit notes low on the scale with such force it hurt her ears and made her arch.
She moved for a better angle and reached, fingers finding the soft cuff of his pant leg, then trailing inward. She found the muscle of his calf and felt him jump, then settle, without a break to rest in the whirl of the storm of strings. He felt rough and somewhat cool, but deliciously solid, and she played back the music to him as caresses, grazes, and the chill draw of fingernails as emotion and desire surged in response to the torment on the ivory keys.
Open, vulnerable to what he played, Henry's blue eyes flashed at her first touch, and he struggled to maintain his concentration until the piece was finished. Not that he'd mind, terribly. But it was a piece that moved him. And he felt a duty to do it justice. Deft hands fluttered over the keys with strength and grace as the music swelled. Vicki drew nails down his skin with a want that made him shudder. And then her hand gripped. Hard.
Painfully hard and entirely out of sync with the Prelude.
Fitzroy jerked at the nails digging into his flesh and played another bar with wary effort. She did not let go.
"Vicki?" his voice was all worry, and his playing became automatic.
Something, he decided, was wrong. And his heart took a sharp leap into his throat.
The piano moaned its last awkward note as Henry wrenched from her painful grasp and slid sideways off the bench to kneel at her side. His ponderously slow heart nearly stopped.
Her whole body was shaking, seizing. And without the music blaring, he could clearly hear her heart racing to escape.
He pulled her into a more open area and darted away, returning with a thick paintbrush to place between her teeth with trembling hands. He hovered in numb panic trying to decide what to do, his hands traveling in impotent reiki over her face, her shoulders, her arms. His young, beautiful face held terror and indecision as she thrashed. She hadn't . . . he couldn't really have . . . caused—just as the thought came to him to call the paramedics, the sweep of his eyes caught the demon tattoos on her wrists. The glowed as hot iron.
He sat back on his haunches and pressed his eyes shut with restrained fury. Paramedics would be a bit out of their element. Hell he was almost out of his element. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes to watch helplessly as his partner shuddered and bucked. A hand reached to brush her forehead lightly, even as her head rolled and rolled. Sorrow and sick concern clawed his eyes as he shifted to kneel on one knee, still as a statue, waiting. Every sense ached for information. He drew in her scent to search for a change in chemistry, listened to her heart and breathing for any signs of . . . anything. You weren't supposed to touch someone in this state, not hold them down or back. Against every instinct, he did not draw her into his lap and did not embrace her tightly until it was all over.
Long after it seemed like it should have, the seizure worked its course, and at length, Vicki lay motionless.
"Vicki . . ." Henry leaned over her prone form and slipped the paintbrush from her lips. His voice was soft and full of worry as he lowered in close, thinking, perhaps, of fairy tales. She was still as death, save for the movement of her chest under his hand and the steady sound of her heart.
Henry sat back abruptly and stared at her. This was her kind of problem. It cried out for her kind of method. The tattoos were all he had to go on. It meant—it meant magic of one form or another. His face darkened. He took her limp hand in his and held it for a moment, drawing a determined resolution from the warmth that radiated into him. He considered his options as he looked at her face. And then he moved.
With a practiced grace, the vampire swept his partner up into his arms. She fell lifeless against him. And the vulnerability made his heart clench. His expression grew more pained as he carried her to his bed and laid her down, arranging her into what looked like restful repose. He flexed his jaw, looking down at her from the bedside, and then spun on his heel.
His cell phone lay on his work table, and he snatched it up with mounting anxiety. He dialed from memory.
The soul of Evan Ryerson clung to his body for an indescribable fraction of time and then, like a guitar string, snapped into oblivion, leaving behind an echo of sour notes as memories. The thing inside his flesh shifted, feeling a hardness beneath its shoulder blades that puzzled. It flexed and discovered hands. Opened its eyes and saw the dull ceiling of the alcove in the Rare Books Library.
Its eyes were not Evan's eyes. Wholly inhuman, there was utter blackness where white had been. Pupils of crystalline fire glittered in the centers, seeming to cast off a light of their own. The alien eyes glanced around once at the unimaginable darkness of his surroundings. It was so little light he could barely see.
Evan's body breathed, and the invader sat bolt upright at the lack of ash and sulfur. It was . . . clean, hideously fresh like pins in his chest. And all around, all around, the scent of luscious food.
As his eyes flicked down to the hands of his host, he smiled—a feral thing.
"Free . . ." he breathed, in a hot voice, like Evan's full of fury. And he rose unsteadily to his feet. He licked his chapped lips and felt a roil in his stomach a thousand, ten thousand years old. Again the toothy wide smile that suggested, somehow, of much longer fangs. The hunger was more intense than he could ever remember. And all around him, real food.
He started for the door, all wooden and teasing. Almost giddy with anticipation, he reached a flat palm for it. Touched.
Nothing happened. No burst of flame, no smoke from his searing palm. Black eyes narrowed, and he looked down at the human's body in disappointment and disgust. It would not do, would not do! Not after all this time, to slip into a mortal and find it . . . palsied! He snarled at the door and his weak human hand. The anger burned clarity into his mind.
The fire's wisdom is this: the greatest conflagration begins life as a spark.
It would take time, he assured himself. He looked back at his hand, flushed with fevered pink. Time.
In his mind's eye, Evan's last thoughts flashed. A wife. A bitch, burning. He smiled at his choice of host, so eager to see sinners punished, as was only fitting. It was what sinners deserved and what the judgment of God has always demanded. Even in punishment, he had maintained a continuity of profession. Certainly a vacation should not mar such a record.
He let his hand slide from the door and reached instead for the handle. An impression of something . . . missing nagged at him, and he glanced to the desk and overturned chair. The jacket caught his frozen fire eyes, and he quickly snatched it up and tossed it over his shoulder before hurrying out.
The image of the burning woman played before his devil's eyes. A last request from his host? He hurried down the length of the library, giving the food he passed a wanton, aching look. He had time to spare, and even so, responsibilities to uphold. It would be a fine honor, he thought, to see his host's last will done. He licked his dry lips as he started down the stairs. Punishing the wicked was his lot, after all. What could his betters possibly say in argument to that?
His betters. Ex-brothers.
With every step, he could feel his power gathering. Heat churned inside his new body and radiated outward. As his foot touched down on the bottom level, a sharp pain erupted in his arm. Startled, he scratched at it, seeking relief. He clawed harder. And his fingers came away from inside his sleeve with blood. He grimaced and continued to stalk away.
"Professor Ryerson!" The cymbal voice of Lynnette rang out.
He did not slow down, looking instead at his damaged limb in consternation and letting Evan's memory carry him to this place he sensed as home. The hunger snapped impatiently, and that too reminded him of home.
"Professor Ryerson!" the girl jogged across the library and reached out to touch him on the arm. She gasped when she made contact. He was more than warm to the touch.
He whirled on her, black fire eyes wide with malice. "I am not your professor!" he boomed in a voice all too convincing.
Lynnette's chest heaved once and she let loose a tearing scream, stumbling back. His eyes were . . . impossible. Panic flared up her spine as she scurried away from him and slammed her back into the reception desk. He never broke eye contact. Never blinked.
As she stood, shivering in shock, she saw him smile. It was a motion of darkness and triumph. She had never seen that look on him before, and her heart raced with the certainty that she had no idea who this man was. Pinned by his black eyes, she became suddenly aware that she was alone with a man who was panting and licking his lips. He breathed with hunger.
She started reaching for the desk phone, still watching him. He seemed hulking. And he watched her without advancing. She felt the cool receiver under her hand and knocked it off its base. Heaving quick breaths, she fumbled for the keypad, sure he would rush her any moment. Her eyes flicked toward the phone for a second, just a second to see the numbers. A second for his hands to be on her. A second for his breath to be hot in her face. She nearly screamed at her own stupidity and looked back.
He was moving away, marching at a determined pace for the front door. Her hand came to a stop. And she sucked in a ragged breath. His form passed through the glass doors and he was gone a moment later. Gone! She sagged. Without ceremony, Lynnette hit the floor, and her eyes spilled over with tears. She pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face in her crossed arms, crying out both terror and relief. She'd been sure, so sure, he was going to do something. Unpleasant. She shuddered against the thought and cried harder, not getting up until one of the phone lines rang.
"Coreen. . ." Henry's voice was tense as he paced the bedroom, glancing every few steps in Vicki's direction.
"Hey, Henry." The young woman replied in a voice bright with her usual cheer. "What's u—"
"Did you see anything just now?"
She hesitated and her answer was far more subdued than her greeting. "You mean did I break any windows."
"No. Nothing. I mean, not today. Yesterday there was . . . it was just a dark shape in an alley."
"But nothing today," Henry pressed.
"No. I have this paper due, and I've been up to my ears in ancient Greeks."
It should have been comforting knowledge that Astaroth wasn't wreaking some new havoc on his city, on his citizens. Henry stopped at the foot of the bed and stared at Vicki's unmoving face. It wasn't.
"—listening to me?" Coreen's voice suddenly came to him.
"I . . . what?"
She huffed. "What's going on? You don't just call to ask about visions."
He ran a hand over his face. "I need you to come to the apartment."
"O . . . kay. Do you need me to bring any—"
"Just hurry," he cut her off again, then added "Please." Far more emotion flowed into that word than he'd intended.
"Right." Her voice came back over the phone distant but compliant. "I'll be there as soon as I can," she said, then hung up.
For a moment, Fitzroy listened to the silence on the phone. Then he flipped the device shut and pressed it to his forehead, making a conscious effort just to draw, willing himself into a place of focused calm. He waited until the urge to snap his phone in half had passed, and then he sighed and slipped the cell into his pocket.
At a loss until Coreen arrived, he moved to the bed and down onto the satin sheets. Vicki's chest rose and fell with the depth and ease of sleep. Her blond hair fell with an artful wave about her face. Except for one errant lock.
Henry lifted a hand to brush away the strands, the rings on his fingers flashing in the light from the lamp. She was so still. He let himself touch the warm bronze skin of her cheek and closed his eyes to focus on the sensation, the heat, as though the moment, the life of her needed capturing. He shifted and took her hand. Her fingers lay limp in his grasp as before, but her pulse was strong. Her pulse was strong.
As he sat in vigil, waiting for Coreen to arrive, Henry felt his heart tear. Every sense was keyed to Vicki's condition. So when her serene face took on a slight frown, he nearly jumped. Her breath hitched, and he called her name, leaning in close. But the moment slipped on. And the vampire was left more drained than he'd been seconds before, despair filling the new space that the burst of hope had created.
It seemed like forever that he sat, running the scene over and over. The marks had flared. They had flared. It couldn't have been the music, simply couldn't have been. The marks had burned. And that left him with only one real avenue to explore, just as soon as . . .
A rapid, distinctively murmured heartbeat hurried down the hall outside.
Henry set Vicki's hand down and dashed for the front door, pulling it open before Coreen had a chance to knock. She started and stared at him with her wide eyes rimmed in black and bright green.
"Do you always do that?" she asked, scurrying into the apartment at the brisk wave of Henry's hand.
And Coreen held her bag a little closer to her side, peering around his apartment with curious caution. She shifted with nervous energy.
"So, why am I—"
"Vicki had a seizure." They spoke over top of one another.
Her eyes took up her whole face. "You're telling me now?" Coreen's voice went shrill.
Face tight with a variety of warring emotions, Henry managed a "Follow me," with only a twinge of imperial command, though it was hardly necessary. He led her into the bedroom and stepped aside as she rushed forward, the chains on her dress clinking like ice. She plunked herself down, dropped her bag, gave her boss an evaluating look, and then turned sharply.
"You said a seizure?" she demanded.
"That's what it looked like."
She glanced at Vicki and then back. "My aunt's an epileptic. She falls down, shakes, wakes up. No problem if she doesn't hit anything." She turned, a little breathless. "So why isn't she waking up?"
A scowl deepened on the vampire's ageless face. "Because it's not epilepsy. It's something more, something magical." He crossed his arms. "The marks flared when it happened."
Instinctively, Coreen's body stiffened. She swallowed and looked down at her boss.
Henry went on, "I need you to stay here. Make sure nothing else happens." His voice was low and filled with determination.
She bobbed her head. "It's like . . . Sleeping Beauty," she whispered.
Henry clenched his jaw.
"Guess it's a good thing you're a prince, right?" She looked up at him hopefully, but the grin he gave her was anything but reassuring.
Moonlight was sliding by on silver wings.
He put a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up at him with those dark, bruised eyes. "Call me if anything changes," he said.
"Every sneeze. Guaranteed."
He stepped back, edging toward the door, but not quite ready to leave. He let himself linger for a breath, glanced at Coreen, and then bowed to necessity. There was only one place to go for answers to his kind of question. Henry snatched a long, light peacoat on his way out the door and ran for his car. It would be ungracious to arrive after closing hours.
It took the subway line Evan knew would lead home. It had memory of this route out of the city center. Familiar signs loomed outside the train at every stop. Above, all around, he could smell oil. It sloshed in small pockets in their cars. It ran rivers in the earth. It teased with its pungent blackness, whetting an appetite insatiable and consuming almost to distraction.
Sweat poured from Evan's body, soaking his clothes. Drips fell from his face onto the floor, and his breath came in large, billowing heaves. He moved, and his face twisted in pain as every joint lit with agony. Yet still his power was not full. He looked down at the failing host of a body with a grimace. But, it was not the host's fault. The host had sacrificed, and he would see that debt repaid. Let the heavens say what they would of the honor of the fallen.
He shuddered and mopped his red, burning face. The others in the car had given him a wide berth. Retreating from the heat of his presence, he thought. Or more likely, from the blackened nightmare eyes that cast long unblinking gazes their way. So many souls yet unweighed. So much work to still be done.
The subway train slowed and came to a sharp halt. Its sudden shift in state helped propel him to standing, and he lumbered from the car. Down the street. Down the street, third block. The woman in his memory lay waiting. He walked with a weak shuffle, practically dragging the human flesh along with him.
This . . . woman. This Melanie. He had visions of Evan's love and visions of Evan's fear and hate. His host had wanted so many things, so much more. A guilt and self—loathing not his own blended with a bone-deep desire that was all too familiar, and they danced at the edge of his consciousness. Dark head lowered, orange fire rippling in black eyes, he growled and stepped up to the door.
He felt as Evan felt, standing so many times outside his own home—as though he were nothing. Nothing! Rankled with indignation, he started to shake with rage. Who were they to say he was nothing? Who were they to flaunt their power, they who live in the light and hurl down invectives like tossed swords! How could they know, who felt no pain. What right to judge the proper extent of torment?
They were no one. Pawns. Powerless puppets! His chest heaved even as anger and water poured off. He reached for the keys in his pocket and shoved them at the lock with unsteady hands.
He saw her scowling, shrieking.
He jabbed the keys again, scraping metal on metal.
The voices piled in his mind, and he felt his power flare. With a roar, he chucked the keys aside and threw Evan's body at the door. Alone, the human would have fallen. But no human lived here anymore. With the sick crack of bone and the bark of shattered wood, the door flew in.
He surged inside, heaving and snarling.
"Woman!" The voice of a volcano thundered.
A breath of painful, clear air.
Then she appeared at the top of the stairs, just as Evan's memory had showed him. She charged down, and he backed into the living room, leading her in, letting her come.
"What the fuck did you do!" She hollered at the door as she came down and then wheeled on him, arms and nightgown fluttering. She looked like a banshee. "What—" Her tirade, just winding up, stopped suddenly. Hazel eyes met frozen, crystal fire.
She stared, and her color drained.
"What . . ." she said again, taking a small step back.
"Daddy!" a young voice squealed as Katie shot down the stairs. Her mother flailed in her direction and caught her by the back of her shirt, hauling her close.
There would never be enough air to fill his need. His whole body rocked with the effort to draw it in.
So much food, he thought in agony. So much hate. Rhagades burst forth on his skin, red and oozing rawness quickly becoming char. The power flowed. Oh, it flowed and burned with dizzying intensity. All of a sudden, too much. He locked eyes with the host's child. And he screamed as the flesh took fire.
Henry Fitzroy adjusted his collar as he crossed the dark street toward the shop. He actively softened the tension in his face, simultaneously steeling himself inside. Rings glinted in the scant moonlight as he pushed in the door and entered Sínead's sanctuary. The last time had not been pleasant, and it was almost a wonder she had not barred him front entering again. Dark magic billowed like dust out of the back room, and Henry grimaced as he felt it touch him. Residue from spells long cast lay in a blanket over the foyer, forever staining the space like a putrid tar. The vampire touched nothing, walking with a soundless gait toward the dark back room. He brushed aside a curtain of beads as he entered.
"Henry . . ." came a sweet voice from behind, smooth and beautiful as oleander. Almost instantly a round chin pressed against his shoulder. White arms slid around his waist, hands splaying possessively over his stomach.
He leaned neither in nor away and kept his voice neutral. "Sínead."
He felt her nuzzle closer, burying her all too innocent face in the curls of his hair. She lingered, drew a breath, and sighed into his ear. "I'm surprised to see you."
"But not angry."
"I was angry. Furious. You had no right—" She cut herself off as she felt burning indigation rise and color her cheeks. "I haven't seen her since."
She was angry. But that path led nowhere, save a fight she was bound to lose. Sínead steadied and drew close to his neck, letting her lips touch flesh as she spoke. "Her shining knight. I've always admired that about you."
He slid his hands over hers. "Really?"
"Mmm. Really." She took his lack of immediate rejection as invitation and gave a slight nibble to his ear.
"Does that mean," he said with a warm smile, lacing hushed tones with a dreamy purr as he turned in her arms, "that you might help me with something?"
His smile remained; hers did not. The sorceress's brown eyes narrowed. Of course she had never expected him to come bearing forgiveness. But still. She could bargain for herself all the while if that was his game.
Her reply was measured and distracted. She reached up a slender hand to play with his hair. "Help you with what?" She flicked her eyes to meet his.
Force of will kept him from pushing her away, even as her hands roamed where they willed, pushing, testing. He took a steady breath.
"I need to know if there's been a . . . disturbance."
"Disturbance?" Sínead watched her own hand play along his neck with interest.
Henry smirked, ignoring the caresses that had once been cause to shiver. "In the Force."
"Hmm." She made the sound as though she barely heard him. And then she pressed forward, running a hand down the front of his pants as she looked him, daring, in the eyes.
He caught her wrist quickly and held it with a care they both knew to be false. Defiance flashed across her face, and she jerked back, stepping from the dangerous embrace.
"You used to be more fun." She turned away and rounded the small table that held the tools of her trade. She slipped into her chair without a hint of her wounded pride, sliding with a swan's grace. Without thinking, her hands found a stack of tarot cards and began to shuffle.
"So what do I get for this information, then?" She glanced up, anger sharpening her tone.
A pleased smile. Henry took the seat opposite her and crossed his legs, as though this wasn't an urgent matter, as though he had all the time in the world to sit and chat. His hands itched to ball into anxious fists. Instead, he relaxed onto one elbow and propped an index finger along his temple in a gesture of elegant patience. "Your usual fee."
She arched a sculpted eyebrow, hands never slowing.
He gave her an indulgent grin, cold and impersonal. "In cash."
"I could have used magic on you just now," she said, watching him carefully. "I didn't."
"And I could have snapped your neck the last time I was here. You would have deserved it." The vampire replied mildly, still affecting relaxation in the hard wooden chair. "I didn't."
The cards came to a stop. Sínead barely breathed as she read the casual callousness in his eyes. It was not, as far as she knew, an act. He never looked away, and eventually she swallowed and set the deck down.
"Fine," she said in clipped tones to save pride. "You want . . . what?"
Henry hid his pleasure at the triumph. "Is there anything new in the city? Did you feel anything in the last hour or so?"
Her pleasant, doll-like face went still. "There was something," she said in a small voice. "It was like a gunshot. Something violent. Something . . ." She looked at him from under long lashes. "A lot stronger than you."
Whether the concern was for an ex-lover or favorite toy, he could not say. But her heartbeat said she believed every word.
"Where can I find it?" he pressed.
"You want me to scry?" A hand fluttered to her chest. She looked scandalized.
He dropped his crossed leg to the floor and leaned forward slightly. His expression darkened. "If that's what it takes."
Sínead mirrored him, leaning forward, pressing her hands onto the table to give her cleavage extra depth. She waited to see if he would look. He did. And then he looked into her eyes with pitying amusement.
She sneered and jerked up to standing. "And here I thought magic was worth killing me over. Just not when it suits you, I suppose. Fine. You want to scry? I'll scry. But we're using your blood." She managed not to spit, despite her anger. He had been hers once—a gloriously thoughtful lover, a powerful pet. The sheer shame of her failure to hold him made her cheeks burn. Not even with magic. She couldn't even keep him with that.
On pride alone, the sorceress glided to a bookshelf and began selecting among her artifacts. She pulled out a folded bit of paper from a stack near the bottom and then opened a wooden case at eye level with a key that dangled from her neck. Careful fingers picked over the crystals that lay sleeping inside. Some favored lovers, some objects, some souls. The shard of celestite will seek out holy sites, sanctuaries, and places of healing potential. A piece of black pearl, however, will strain to reconnect with the energies it has absorbed over time.
Sínead lifted the black pearl from the case and quickly closed the heavy lid, as though she expected something to attempt escape. With deliberate care, she moved the magic box on the table aside and unfolded a map of Toronto. As she did so, she dipped down and came back to standing holding a small dagger in one hand. The pearl dangled from the other.
"You wanted to do this," she said darkly.
The vampire looked between the dagger and the pearl. Time was marching on. He could feel the sun crawling through space and felt a quick panflash, like breath on his face, of despair at having left Vicki's side at all. With a scowl, he stood and held out a hand.
"Think dark thoughts," the sorceress said.
"How dark?" It didn't seem like he was joking.
His tone made her shiver, and she averted her eyes, concentrating on his outstretched hand.
"Destruction. Hate. Relive a moment when you truly enjoyed hurting someone. The more you enjoyed it, the easier this will be."
Fitzroy's eyes fell closed.
London lay in ruins. The Germans wanted nothing less than total victory, complete surrender. His home, his city, consumed by their hate and their greed. What was not dusted rubble burned. What would a crown prince do? What would any protector. What would any angel of vengeance.
He slipped into France by fishing boat, ordering a poor peasant with far too much sense to do so willingly to take him. He tore his hands as he clambered up the Cap Gris Nez and slipped into the ruins of a fortress his father had built. Moonlight cast crags from the ruin's high walls along the newly constructed, whitewashed walls of a Nazi blockhouse. Their insult could not have been truer, deeper than if they had planned for his arrival. This in his father's house. Fury, not tempered but hardened, coursed through every supernatural limb.
The guttural barks of their thick, lazy tongues placed them more precisely than the beating of their hearts. He stood in shadow, eyeing just long enough the timing of the guards. One spoke to another. They laughed. The taut string of the vampire's control snapped. The threat of daylight was nothing in comparison to the satisfaction. The sentries were mere toys. He lit into one with teeth and shook like a wolf, gouging out the throat in a swift tear. Henry spit out the hunk of flesh and left the man to die to the sound of his own bubbling blood.
The second, the second he wanted to savor. With the speed of cast shadow, he darted around the stone wall of the crumbling fortress and caught the German boy just as he was beginning to turn. The rifle hit the ground. And the boy let out a startled cry as he was lifted and slammed into the stones at his back. Shouts answered back, but they existed at the edge of consciousness. For all Henry could taste and feel and hear was the blood. He sank his fangs deep and drank without pause. Fear was spicy on his tongue as he took all he could take. The fists pounding at his shoulders stopped. The dead son of a whoreson bitch fell without a sigh. Heaving, smiling, Henry licked his lips to taste the last throes and lifted his head to the sounds of the soldiers of the fort. There were so many more. Delicious pulses calling, calling. And so many hours of night.
The tang of blood on his tongue, the memories of German slaughter fresh, the vampire's eyes bore black, and he flashed fangs at Sínead. He gasped once with potent memory and hunger. And she darted to cut a small slit in his palm. Fitzroy sneered and then grasped the hanging pearl while the blood still ran. He focused his hate into his hand, imbuing the stone with the joy of slaughtering his enemies. And then the prickle of pain was gone, and he drew his hand away.
"Sufficient?" he snarled.
The sorceress swallowed. "I imagine so."
He closed his eyes, and then the visage of an ageless prince returned. "Then hurry."
She spared him a withering look as she began reciting incantations in her mind. Called by the force of her will, by the pattern of her thoughts, magic frothed from the ether, filling the parlor with its stink. Henry's lip curled as he felt the darkness fill the air. But he remained dutifully silent and still, concentrating instead on the pearl that bore his blood and hate.
Sínead dangled the scrying crystal over the map and spoke the last bit of the spell out loud. "Pete malum," she commanded, the words spoken strong and clear.
Instantly, the string jerked, and she followed its lead over the map of the city. The pearl strained at the end of its leash, and she had to squeeze her fingers more tightly to keep from losing control. It drew them to Glenlake Road, a residential area west of downtown. There it hovered, shivering with effort.
Henry bent close, eyeing the small pearl and the map below. Even as he watched, the device drifted.
"It's moving," he said.
Sínead minutely shrugged. "Then so is whatever you're looking for."
Henry let out a low growl as he straightened.
The woman's eyes flashed. "I did what you wanted," she said defensively, cutting the flow of power to the pearl.
"I know." He reached into his pocket and withdrew a wad of bills. He counted off five, folded them, and offered them up.
Sínead's eyes narrowed. "I don't want your money." She gathered the scrying gem into her palm.
"Too bad," came the quick reply. And he leaned forward and tucked the bills into her exposed cleavage. She jerked at the touch but said nothing and did not try to stop him. "Don't call me, I'll call you," he added. And then he was gone, leaving her staring at the empty space in her darkened abode.
The frozen fire eyes of a child sparkled as she watched a merry blaze burn. As it roared, her belly grumbled. There was so much food here. Everywhere she turned was something new, delicious, and untouched. The small body shuddered involuntarily. Already, everything ached, and the host poured sweat. She mopped tangled of blond hair from her sticky red cheeks. It would not do. It would not do at all.
Five hosts in such a short time. But they did not die in vain. He looked out over the dwellings and their oils and gasses at the fires that jumped high into the night sky. Each one fed his need. Each one a unique experience, not a single one ever enough. His joints stabbed pain at him, and boils covered his raw flesh. The human was never meant to carry something so awesome in aspect. The second-born were too weak, too frail a palimpsest for a first-born soul.
Hazy with hunger and pain, he trudged on, trying to remember something. It seemed important. New. Between hosts, something in the interstitial space felt like a bell . . . a tolling he wanted to turn his face to and follow. It carried with it the undertones of Hell. In his curiosity, he could not but follow.
As Henry hurled himself into his car, his cell phone let out its strangled noxious wail of a ring. He answered as he turned the ignition.
"Hi. Umm, you said I should call if anything changed, right?" Her youthful voice wavered.
The vampire went very still. "What is it?"
"It's Vicki. She"—he could picture her frowning—"she looks like she's in pain." The girl admitted softly.
A cold blade slid between his ribs, driving the breath out of him.
Coreen hesitated on the other end of the line and then went on. "And . . . I'm pretty sure she's been muttering your name."
That cold pain in Henry's chest flared from dread to fierce love and back. With his free hand he gripped the crucifix at his chest and let it guide him through doubt and fear to some place safer—determination. He'd failed Vicki once, and that memory mixed with current devotion was a glowing forge.
"Henry?" Coreen's voice said.
"I heard you," he replied quietly.
"I wasn't even sure I should have called, but—"
"You did fine," he said, voice stronger. The image of Vicki lying helpless receded as his chest began to burn with resolve. "I have a lead I need to follow. But call me if anything else changes."
"Sure," she said. And then as an afterthought, "Oh! Henry!"
He put the phone back to his ear in alarm. "Yes?"
"If you need anything, you know . . . I can help. I want to."
Fitzroy smiled at that. "I'll remember." The phone snapped closed, and the Jaguar roared. Sínead's spell had said Glenlake. As his luck would dictate, that was near High Park, clear on the other side of the city. Vampire senses tuned high, he sped out onto the Gardiner Expressway, the cityscape whipping by in a blur of sodium lights.
Long before he saw it, he heard the siren. Then a carnival of reds and whites careened up a dip in the highway and bore down on his car. He had never developed the knee-jerk fear of the authorities that most people acquire by instinct. There was little to be afraid of in any pliable human. But that didn't keep law enforcement from being an inconvenience if they so chose.
Irritated, he pulled into a slower lane, preparing to pull into the shoulder.
And much to his shock, the lights darted past. Henry watched the cruiser and then checked his rearview mirror. A second cruiser and then a third seemed to appear from nowhere and barrel off after some unknown quarry.
Then came the distinct silhouette of a fire engine, powering down the highway for all it was worth. As his kept his eye on the mirror, he could make out more of them. A whole line of them.
Smooth brow furrowing into a frown, Fitzroy checked for his exit. The turn for Parkside should be next—just around the next bend. Just . . . he ground his teeth. Just where all the emergency teams were making their hasty exit.
Even before he took the ramp, he could see where they were headed. The sky glowed orange above the roofline. It looked . . . cold fingers gripped his spine. He shivered unnaturally as his hands tightened on the steering wheel. It looked like a whole section of the city was burning.