Austin

As soon as I could liberate the Aston-Martin from the garage and pack my gear into it, I was underway. It seemed that every leg of my journey was getting bigger and longer. Austin was even farther away from Denali than Ithaca – the trip alone took me several days to complete. In addition, the Austin metropolitan area was much larger than Fairbanks – four times as big, in fact.

Unlike Denali, the area was almost completely foreign to me. My family had always kept to the north, seeking to avoid the clan warfare that permeated the southern reaches of the U.S. and Mexico. When I had been a hunter, I had primarily kept to the north as well, never far from one of the larger cities.

However, Jasper seemed intimately familiar with Austin, and several of his war stories originated from the region surrounding it. While I drove, he downloaded reams of information on the area and its possible inhabitants to my communications console, and I spent the long hours on the road learning whatever I could to prepare myself for this next trial.

I entered town on I-35 from the north, and stopped my journey in the northern suburbs. Jasper was convinced that the area's vampires would be located in the city center, and that I should be pretty unrecognizable in the fringes. Jasper had also sent me a name and address located in a commercial office park nearby. I was to meet with a real estate agent there at eight.

The agent was an elegant older lady dressed in a smart suit, and didn't seem the least perturbed at my somewhat disheveled appearance. "Mr. Cullen?" she trilled. "So pleased to meet you! Was your journey difficult?" she queried as she shook my cold hand smartly, without a hint of concern.

"Ummm….no, it was fine," I muttered. Except for Laurent, I had spoken to fewer than five individuals in Alaska, and all of them sturdy, quiet types. This lady vibrated with an innate energy I hadn't encountered in months. Since the last time I spoke to Alice, in fact.

"Mr. Jasper had indicated that you'd be by to pick up the keys and codes to your new headquarters. I'm so glad we'll be able to accommodate your needs. You'll just love Austin!" She took my arm and wheeled me towards a non-descript commercial building.

She showed me around a workspace set up for technology start-up firms, with plentiful workbench space, moderate office space, and even spare living quarters.

"For those individuals who can't bear to be parted from their work!" she chirped, clearly including me in that category.

When I witnessed my appearance in the bathroom mirror during the tour, I could tell why. I looked like I hadn't bathed or changed clothes in a week, but the designer threads that Alice always provided were clearly expensive and trendy. Combined with my relatively young age and weary-looking eyes, I looked every inch the exhausted but brilliant CEO of an upcoming technology firm.

I wondered what Bella would think if she could see me now, and stood there for a long minute, staring into the glass, looking at Bella staring back at me. I reached a hand out to her still form, willing her to speak, but stopped at the polite cough from the agent. In a hurry, I blocked the reflection from my view.

Eventually the agent left, and I transferred the equipment into the office and connected to Jasper, just as I had in Fairbanks.

"Edward!" Alice exclaimed, as soon as she heard my voice.

"Alice," I murmured warningly. "I told you not to look for my future."

"Goodness, Edward. You'd think I get all of my information from my visions." Again, she sounded hurt, and I realized that I'd hear about this from Jasper when I next spoke to him. I couldn't help but grown inwardly. "In fact, Jasper told me about the appointment, and made a guess as to when you'd be ready to make this call based on previous information. I didn't use my extra abilities at all!"

"Oh," I muttered. I searched for something to say, some sort of apology, and failed.

"But speaking of visions, I did want to talk to you," she continued.

I took a deep steadying breath and glared at the console. "What is it?" I inquired ungraciously. Thoughts of apologizing disappeared.

"Edward, I keep getting this image of you and…flames of some sort. I'm not looking for these visions, I promise! But they keep coming to me, and I'm worried about you. I think you're in danger there in Austin."

"I think I'm probably in danger as long as I'm tracking someone dangerous like Victoria," I commented dryly, finally finding my long-unused voice.

"Well, you must be getting closer. The danger's gotten strong enough that I can see it this far away!" she practically yelled.

A memory of the real estate agent trilling, "You'll just love Austin!" echoed through my head. Welcome to Texas, I thought.

Jasper arrived, and after a gentle tussle, evicted Alice from the console seat so we could run our usual tests, Alice still peering over his shoulder, a warning look on her face. I queried him on a few aspects of his information download, and we discussed strategy. Not knowing what to expect, we went with our usual careful approach.

First, I got cleaned up and re-supplied. I serviced the Aston-Martin, and repaired a few bits of malfunctioning equipment. The Austin area was perfect for such things.

At the same time, I began a careful reconnaissance of the area media: radio, television, and newspaper. I was looking for those subtle signs of vampire activity which can sometimes go unnoticed by the local human population. While I tinkered at the workbenches, I sometimes had three television stations and four radio stations playing simultaneously, with a newspaper spread out next to me. I also listened in to frequencies for local ham radio operators and law enforcement, and the university radio station.

This was more challenging than it should have been. My vampire brain should have been up to this task easily. Instead, the constant barrage of information only served up constant reminders of Bella. I constantly found myself drifting, remembering. The task took longer than it should have.

Grimly, I soldiered through, learning quite a bit about Austin, confirming the information that Jasper had provided – that Austin is a relatively low-crime area, fueled by a booming economy driven by the local university and the associated tech sector companies. For its relative size and complexity, there wasn't a whole lot of subversive activity going on in Austin. It boasted a quite low crime rate, including homicide and missing persons. If there were vampires in the area, they appeared to be feeding outside of the city and keeping a low profile. Vampire warfare was out of the question.

Bolstered by this information, I began a careful surveillance of the target building which lasted for three days. During the day I parked the car someplace downtown, and scanned the surroundings carefully for any resident vampire thoughts.

As I wasn't really using my eyes, they were free to occupy themselves starting at Bella's reflection on the inside of the Aston-Martin's carefully tinted glass, instead of watching the shoppers, college students, and professionals who populated the area by turns. Sometimes, I'd lose track of the thoughts I was supposed to be tracking, and the surrounding conversations would die down to a buzz. I'd sit there, basking in the weak winter sunlight, made weaker still by the dark glass. The buzz changed to resemble the gentle patter of rain, and I'd remember sitting there with Bella, wishing that my time with her in the car would never end.

I had to admit I'd never really allowed myself that wish. I had always been distracted by her scent, something I could remember even now. Instead of wishing that I could sit there with her forever, I was always wishing that I would be strong enough to leave her – to love her enough to make her safe. From me, from the others of my kind…from everything.

Bella, I thought despairingly. I've done it – I've left you alone. I've made you safe. Have I proven it – how much I love you? Will you believe me now when I tell you how much you're the only thing that's ever really mattered to me?

I implored her still form over and over again, haunted by the last expression I'd ever seen on her face. Her silent reflection never answered me, and I knew I'd never get an answer. Eventually, I would shake myself alert with a sigh, and continue my fruitless scan of the area. Three days I scanned, and I never learned anything new.

When nightfall came, I drifted out of my vehicle and scouted the urban landscape for signs of immortal presence. I looked, I listened, I smelled, and I scanned. Nothing appeared out of place. Unlike my earlier experiences, haunting the wasted northern cities, this was relatively pleasant. The older downtown section of Austin was amazingly gentrified, and almost completely crime-free. The architecture was acceptably interesting, and the residents were generally good-hearted individuals.

Eventually, I zeroed in on the target building itself – the Driskill Hotel. After sensing nothing out-of-place for days, I finally decided to check it out – by checking in. If I found no sign of activity in next few days, I decided I would have to count this trail as cold.

When I let Jasper know my plans, I could sense that he was perplexed by the lack of activity. Either the vampires in the area had been eradicated and not replaced, which seemed unlikely, or they had become experts at lying low, which could cause problems for me.

His closing message to me, "Edward, be careful," seemed to echo both his own concerns and Alice's general anxiety. He never could stop himself from picking up on Alice's feelings.

The lobby of the Driskill was unlike most hotels, and even unlike most historic southern hotels. Everything from the unique old art pieces that decorated every spare wall surface to the priceless marble designs in the lobby floors would be hard to replicate.

This was the building in Laurent's vision. There could be no mistake. The building itself was distinctive, from its unusual late 19th Century design, to the unique portrait hanging in the lobby showing the builder, Colonel Jesse Driskill.

According to Jasper, the Colonel had been a vampire back in the warring days, and built this hotel as a safe-house for members of his army. They'd had their own entrance, lost over time to renovations, and they'd defended the place well. Jasper didn't report having won any battles here. On the contrary, he'd once lost all of his followers in a raid on the place, except for Peter, who had hauled Jasper out of the building at the end.

"Is he still there, the Colonel, I mean?" I had asked.

Jasper had hesitated. "I don't know, Edward. I would bet he's dead, given the amount of battle he's seen. But Maria and I are still alive, and Peter, so who knows? Perhaps he's haunting the place still." According to local legend, the hotel was haunted by the Colonel's ghost, and several patrons had mentioned seeing the Colonel's form in the foyer late at night.

Alert for signs of the Colonel or any of his coven, ghost or vampire, I visited all of the areas open to the public, and circled the outside, assessing the structure with both my superior eyesight and my extensive training as an architect.

Portions of it were marked off for repairs, and I made a survey of those as well. It seemed that the landmark building had undergone extensive repairs since its inception, but certain design features had never been changed. Eighteen-inch thick brick walls stood between certain rooms. The floors were iron-reinforced, purportedly because the builder was afraid of fires breaking out in his hotel. I remembered Alice's warning, and wondered vaguely if there was a connection.

I noted that Room 525 was only a few doors down from mine. From Jasper's information, Room 525 had been the scene of several ghastly suicides in the 20th Century, which he suspected weren't suicides at all, given the vampire connection with the building. It was on his list of highly suspicious locations within the building to investigate.

In addition to Room 525, I noted that the building was home to many physical irregularities, caused by the patchwork of renovations and the unusual original construction. The irregularities could house undiscovered passages or rooms, possibly home to a few itinerant vampires, if they didn't mind living in cramped spaces, that is.

Eventually, I returned to my room to investigate using alternative means. I laid down on the opulently soft bed for lack of something better to do, and gazed up at the ceiling to wait for the mental hubbub to die down. This bed was so different from the sparse furnishings I'd had in Fairbanks, the comparison was comical. I didn't have a lot of experience with beds, not really having needed one before, but I could remember one bed that held particular interest for me.

Bella's room - decorated in soft colors and soft lighting, reminiscent of Bella herself. Over the months she'd lived there, it had taken on more and more of her personality, until the room seemed made for her. For almost a year, I'd spent as much time there as I had at the Cullen manor, and I knew every crevasse and corner of it. If I closed my eyes, I could actually hear her sighing in her sleep….

I forced my eyes to open. Focus, Edward, I berated myself with grim amusement. You may be deep in enemy territory right now. The least you could do is pay attention before they set you on fire.

Most of the occupants headed off to sleep eventually, and the background buzz wound down to a general minimum around 3 AM. With so little noise to interfere, I was pushed my hearing out to its limits.

For some reason, it felt a little dulled, as if something was being shielded from me. It wasn't the blankness I always received when I tried to hear Bella's thoughts, but something more akin to hearing Alice's thoughts, if Alice were thinking very carefully about white noise. Of course, Alice would never choose something so basic – it wasn't her style. But perhaps it was someone else's idea of 'lying low'? I concentrated harder, but all I could pick up was white noise. It was frustrating, and a little concerning as well. Who knows I'm here? Who knows how to block my hearing?

I finally picked up the sharp tang of an immortal mind coming into the lobby through the front doors. This wasn't the source of the block – this mind was simple in its self-centeredness, and vaguely reminded me of reading Rosalie's uncomplicated thoughts.

I watched as the vampire gestured at the desk staff, and clicked her way across the marble floors to the elevators. The hotel personnel weren't surprised by her coming in at such an hour, or by her unnatural pallor or deep ruby eyes. She must be a regular, I surmised.

She resembled Victoria in an overt way, down to the long red curls, but the resemblance stopped there. This woman possessed none of the cageyness of Victoria, and her eyes were completely lacking in artifice. What they possessed was boredom.

Her hand punched the button for the fifth floor. I sprang up from the bed, made sure my exits were clear, and waited uneasily behind my door. I didn't know of any reason for her to attack me, but I was clearly in her territory in the warring south – that was reason enough for some vampires.

When she came out of the elevator, she sauntered straight over to my room and whispered at the door panel, "I know you're in there…. Come out, and we can play!"

With this she turned around and headed to the end of the hall. When she reached the door for Room 525, she pulled out an ancient key that didn't resemble a modern keycard. She unlocked the door, stepped inside, and dropped the key on the rug outside the door. Then she pulled the door shut behind her.

I surveyed the inside of the room from her eyes. She shrugged off a floor-length wrap to reveal a stunning evening dress beneath, elaborate and revealing. She lowered herself into a deep armchair and stared at the door. I could sense she was hoping I'd take her bait. I could also sense that while she wasn't a friend, she had no immediate plans to harm me.

I waited for more than an hour for her to think more about the others in her coven, but her thoughts were remarkably shallow. She thought about parties, fashion, and her own boredom. More than once she hoped that I would come over and play. She didn't focus too deeply on what that might entail, for which I was grateful.

Finally, I chuckled reluctantly. It really did resemble listening to Rosalie's thoughts, minus the wit and sharp judgments. I sighed, realizing that I missed her, and even missed listening to her acerbic thoughts. While Rosalie was always a bit of a thorn in my side, she was also the cure to my ego. She was my sister, and really, there was nothing more to it than that.

I knew I should contact Jasper, and see if he had any information about this woman. He hadn't sent any information on her, and I knew he'd been pretty thorough about everyone he'd felt could be involved with the local coven. Any communication from here could be monitored, so I'd have to go back to the suburbs. I might lose this lead while checking it out.

After considering my options for a long moment, I decided to take the bait. I was down the hall in a flash and in her room in less than a second.

The woman's eyes lit up in excitement when she saw me. She rose gracefully to her feet, and gave me an appraising stare that travelled up and down my body. A slow and sultry smile wandered across her lips.

Once upon a time I was used to blocking out the constant interest of other women. It came as a shock now, not just because I had been away from it for so long, but also because this woman's thoughts were so basic, so hungry, that they nearly took my breath away.

"My name's Josephine Driskill, Josie for short. I'm delighted to make your acquaintance." Her voice was soft like honey, and possessed that soft Texan lilt I was used to hearing in Jasper.

"Edward. Edward Cullen," I responded automatically, years of good manners saving me and making me reach out to shake her hand in the gentlest of ways. Her hand was cold, hard, and like mine, could crush a man's skull, I reminded myself.

"Edward, please make yourself at home. I apologize that the quarters are not as spacious as I would like, but we'll just have to make do. Is there anything I can get you?" Her manners were perfunctory, and as she spoke, she settled herself comfortably back into her armchair and beamed at me with a coy smile.

I chose another seat close to the window and the door, just in case I had to make a hasty exit. I tried to look at ease. I wasn't certain that Josie was fooled.

"Yes, Josie, there is something you can get for me. I was hoping to meet the other members of your coven." I tried to give her a charming smile, but my mouth seemed unable to work properly. It was somehow frozen in a frown.

"Edward, dear," Josie purred, "the Colonel will be along soon enough. Perhaps we can spend the time until then getting to know each other a little better?" She leaned forward hopefully, and cast her eyes downward in a series of flutters.

She'd actually batting her eyelashes at me, I thought. I didn't realize people still did that outside of the movies.

The difference between the false, brazen, and shallow woman before me and my lovely, trustworthy Bella was so acute, that it made it difficult for me to keep the disgust off of my face. I mastered both a shudder and a sneer, and managed to keep my face carefully blank. To hide my reaction, I gazed about the room, looking for clues.

"So the Colonel's still alive? I wasn't certain he would be, after all these years," I ventured casually, trying to sound light. "Are the others still around?"

"You know the Colonel? He didn't seem to know you." Josie smiled a satisfied smile, and seemed content with my response. Her head tilted to the side, and she considered me carefully. I could see in her thoughts she was wondering what the connection between us was.

After a moment, she continued, "Well, I suppose you'd remember William, and my long-lost sister Constance, but Kevin's quite new to our coven."

"Does Constance…look anything like you?" I asked carefully.

She made a face and I could sense that she was disgusted by the question. "Ugh, no, Constance looks nothing like me. She's a complete savage." A lovely pout covered her features. "I just don't understand it. Kevin is so taken with Constance these days….he used to be mine, but now I'm all alone." Her eyes held an open invitation. "I need someone new to keep me occupied. Please tell me you're here for a long visit."

I tried to look interested, but once again, my expression wouldn't quite follow my commands. I could see in her expression that I looked a little pained, which caused her to change tack.

"Edward, don't you think you might make yourself a little more comfortable?" she ventured, rapidly rising from her seat, and going over to an ancient record-player. She selected a pristine LP from a stack and fitted it neatly on the player, starting the music with a quick movement of her wrist.

Before I knew what was happening, she was directly in front of me, eyes once again fluttering demurely. "I know it's a tad forward, but I can't help but ask…would you honor me with a dance?"

My eyes said "No," long before my mind had even begun to formulate a response to her plea. There was no stopping my instant reaction.

Josie didn't seem the least bit perturbed by my reticence, but instead reached down to pull at my hands. My manners once again saved me, and I allowed her to pull me upright without a struggle. She settled a hand at my waist and took my other hand in hers.

My muscles automatically engaged in the gentlest of dances, while I concentrated on not touching her body unnecessarily. I hadn't danced with anyone since Bella, and even this forced march seemed like a violation, a betrayal.

Bella! I'm so sorry, my love. I gritted my teeth and tried to look anywhere but down into Josie's welcoming eyes. I tried to remember what it had felt like to dance with Bella, but the contrast was once again so sharp that I had to suppress the shudders. Bella had been soft and pliant, uncertain but trusting. Josie was practically leading me along, her grip strong and confident.

"So Edward, why have you come to our lovely city to see the Colonel?" Josie murmured silkily, interrupting my wayward thoughts.

"I'm looking for someone," I gasped, "a woman I met up north."

"Really?" Josie's voice held a bit more steel now. "Any particular reason?"

I really was a wreck, I realized. I'd once been able to lie straight into Bella's agonized face. Since then, I'd lost so much of myself – my concentration, my abilities – in the struggle to keep myself going through this horrible half-life without her. Now, in my degraded state, I could barely keep my expressions under control, and had nearly no control over the sound of my voice.

I opened my mouth to lie to Josie, and then didn't trust my expression to match my words. I decided, instead, to keep as close to the truth as possible. "I owe her something, and I'd like to pay her back." There, that seemed safe.

Josie considered my answer for a while, and then insinuated her body against mine in a welcoming way. I stopped the dance and tried to pull away immediately, but she locked her arms around my back.

She pouted up at me with a brilliant smile. "Depending on what you owe her, I might be willing to take payment instead."

I closed my eyes and tried to maintain control over the revulsion, the utter derision that wanted to overwhelm me. Part of me wanted to maintain the charade, to get more information from her. But the stronger part of me would not bear it.

All pretence left me at that moment. I gave her my most withering glare, and extracted myself from her embrace in a flash. It could have turned ugly, but she was a better judge of mood than I expected her to be, and let go exactly at the moment when I would have used force. I turned my back on her, and spat out over my shoulder, "When the Colonel is ready to see me, tell him I'll be in my room." Then I marched out the door and down the hallway

I returned to my room, and with my back against the door, attempted to think. Should I return to the workspace and update Jasper securely? Might I miss my chance to talk to the Colonel that way? Do I place a cell phone call from the hotel, knowing that it could be intercepted? I needed to decide, and quickly.

There was no time. Josie received a call in her room. The Colonel was ready to see me now. She smiled, and headed out to the hallway to let me know.

Just like Denali, I thought. I felt like I was getting beaten at chess by a superior player. I had a good idea of what to do in the early game, but then things didn't turn out like I expected, and I had no backup plan. How do you prepare for every possibility? Too much depended on this for me to make mistakes.

Again, like Denali, I was going to have to go on instinct. Instinct told me that I had been lured into the wasp's nest by complacency and now they had the element of surprise. Had Josie been sent as a distraction? Did she even know what part she played in this?

"Come, Edward. Let's go see the Colonel," Josie called lightly from only inches away through the door.

I took a deep breath, and opened the door to face her again. She didn't look the least apologetic for her earlier actions. Instead, she was clearly intrigued by me and my unwillingness. Her face opened into a smile, and she gestured for me to follow.

She led the way back into Room 525, and from there into its bathroom. She made some complicated motion, and slid open a narrow panel in an unused wall. She stepped inside and continued down a narrow staircase. The door swung closed behind her.

We continued down numerous sets of steps and narrow corridors. I attempted to calculate how far down we'd gotten, and realized that we were quite far below ground.

Eventually, the steps ended at a narrow room, only ten feet wide, but quite long. The door closed behind us with a heavy noise. The room was like the rest of the hotel, opulent in marble and mosaic, but missing the artwork. There were no windows or other ornamentation, and only one other door at the far end. I remembered something like this in one of Jasper's battle tales – a heavily trapped entranceway able to bottleneck a large force of invaders. There were some black scorch marks around the edges. It seemed the room had seen some heavy use.

About mid-way along the room, there was a sophisticated looking set of sensors built into the walls. Just beyond them was a deep pit that stretched from one side of the room to the other, filled with metal spikes. Josie motioned for me to stay still, continued past the sensors, and leapt over the pit to the other side. I could hear the faintest of buzzing from the sensors as she passed.

The door opened, and three men filed out and stepped forward to face me in a row. Josie sauntered past and slung an arm around the waist of one of them. I faced them straight on.

"Well, well, well, you've got a lot of guts coming into our territory looking for trouble, boy." The Colonel boomed, easily recognizable from his portrait. His Texan accent was thick, and he looked to be powerfully built and used to action. I tried to hear his thoughts, and realized uneasily that the Coronel was the source of the white noise. He chuckled and winked at me, as if at an inside joke.

"Please meet my associate William Hubble," the Colonel indicated the older-looking vampire on his left, "and my son Kevin Driskill," the younger-looking vampire on the right. "And of course, you've met my daughter, Josie."

William Hubble, the painter of the Colonel's portrait, stood easily with an arm slung around Josie's shoulders, like an adoring uncle. He could have been the Colonel's brother – they had the same stance and look in their eyes. He smoked a cigar – unusual for a vampire. Neither the tobacco nor the nicotine has any appeal for us. I guessed it was out of habit.

Kevin Driskill was clearly from another generation, if not another world. His "Han Shot First" t-shirt proclaimed him a bit on the geeky side and clearly very modern. He was comparatively slight of build, with dark hair, and an intense look to his eyes. He had probably been a University student, or maybe a dropout. I wondered how long he had been a vampire.

I scanned their thoughts. William wasn't overly worried about me. Kevin, on the other hand, saw me as a distinct threat. He was tense and practically snarling.

Pieces on a chessboard, missing the Queen. Where was Constance?

I realized they were waiting for my response. "My name is Edward Cullen," I stated tersely.

"Yes, we know all about you…and your family." The Colonel shifted his weight a bit. "We're not too fond of Jasper Hale around here, and we don't hold much truck with him sending one of his coven members to spy on us." William chuckled while the Colonel drew in a heavy breath. "I have to admit, we've been debating over whether to kill you, or let you return with a message to your boss. Your talent is pretty impressive, but you can't be too bright, coming down here on nothing more than the word of a pretty woman."

I processed this little bit of information carefully before I formulated a reply. "I've never been involved in the wars, and I'm not now. Jasper's out of that business too. I've come here on my own personal business…looking for someone."

The Colonel and William straightened up a bit. "That so?" the Colonel rumbled. It didn't look like either one believed me.

Kevin's growl became audible for the first time. Josie and the older gentlemen glanced over at him in surprise, wondering why he was reacting that way.

He's come here to hurt her. It's just like she said. Kevin's thoughts were clear, and clearly hostile.

I stared at him, awestruck. Several things slid into place at once. Constance must be Victoria. Laurent must have warned her I was coming.

For the first time, the Colonel looked intrigued. "So there is more to this than I knew. What haven't you and Constance been telling me?"

Kevin didn't lift his malevolent stare from me. "Constance says that this man killed her companions because his coven doesn't believe in killing humans. They're willing to destroy their own kind to protect the humans they keep as pets."

The Colonel's brow furrowed deeply at this. Josie exclaimed incredulously, "What do they eat?"

"Animals," Kevin spat.

While Josie shrieked, William piped up with, "You mean to tell us that Jasper Hale has formed a coven of human-lovers up north? Hell would freeze over first."

"We're both members of a family that doesn't harm humans. Neither one of us formed it." My situation was dire, and yet I couldn't help but be a little amused at the thought of Jasper in charge of the Cullens.

The Colonel finally weighed in. "That doesn't sound like the Jasper Hale that I know."

"You don't know him very well," I ground out between gritted teeth.

Silence reigned for a long moment.

He continued in a more menacing tone, "That may be, but it does sound like you mean to do our Constance some harm, and I can't allow that. She came to us looking for protection, and we've given it to her, despite our past differences. She's gone away to protect herself against you and the rest of your…family."

I started forward. "Where has she gone?"

"Careful of the sensors, boy," William commented idly. "Those bio-scanners will know you're not one of us. Sets off all kids of defenses."

I didn't like the sound of that. "What have you done with her?" I demanded, holding my ground.

Stonily, they all faced me, determined not to say. I searched desperately through their thoughts for clues. William and Josie hadn't known she had left. The Colonel gave me nothing but white noise. Kevin, on the other hand, exulted in his knowledge. She's left this dull city for a hideaway in Brazil…and I'm going to meet her there. She and I will be together forever, just as soon as you're dead.

And then I saw it. Kevin had fallen desperately in love with Victoria. I could see the memories of her in his embrace, promising him her love and devotion, as soon as he helped her take care of this one annoying detail….

"Don't believe it, Kevin. She doesn't love you," I warned.

"She does!" He screamed, way too loudly for the small space. "She proved it to me."

"Colonel, listen to me," I started, facing the bigger man beside him. "When I met Constance, she went by the name of Victoria, and she had long been the mate of the leader of her nomadic coven, James. It's been less than a year. She can't possibly have feelings for Kevin. She's using him!"

The Colonel looked between the two of us, as if judging our respective cases. "She left our coven here to follow a nomad named James, and as she was leaving, she swore she would never go by the name I gave her again. Your story checks out, boy."

"Colonel, this man means to kill Constance!" Kevin shouted. "You can't possibly be listening to him."

The Colonel considered his face for a moment, and then turned back and gave me a stony glance. "Why harm Constance, boy? What did she do to you?"

"Her mate, James, decided to play a dangerous game with my family. He tried to track and kill a human that was under our protection. Victoria…Constance helped him before we killed him. I want her to answer for her actions in helping James."

I felt like I was slipping. While the Colonel might save Kevin from Victoria's clutches, I didn't really have a good reason for him to help me…or let me leave here alive. I wanted the Colonel to understand why it had been so important to us…to me…to protect Bella against all costs.

I added, looking down, "The human, Bella, she…was…my…mate." The words wrenched themselves out of me, slowly, painfully. Spoken in terms vampires could understand. Vampires didn't really marry, as damned souls have no religion to marry them. Only my family married, and only I had ever even considered using a term like "boyfriend" to describe myself. Those were terms that humans used. But "mate" was a term vampires understood. It was permanent and binding, and it carried a certain understanding….

Josie shrieked again, and the others sneered. Only the Colonel seemed to consider my words carefully.

He finally spoke, "That's impossible, boy."

"It's possible if you don't harm humans." I maintained steadily, looking back up again.

The Colonel drew in a big breath and looked me straight in the eyes. "I'm not wild about that boy Constance ran off with. I always wished her well, but she made her decisions, and she made them with open eyes. I don't aim to answer for her mistakes, and no one else should either," he said thoughtfully. He spent a long moment staring at Kevin.

Then his eyes hardened. "But what you're describing isn't natural. And when all is said and done, you're still with Jasper Hale and she's still my daughter, my family. Family is what's important, boy." He backed off several steps, and motioned for the others to come too. "You die here."

He nodded at William. I saw the intention in William's head, and it gave me a few seconds to react. I started running forward at top speed. While Josie and Kevin backed up behind the Coronel, William sucked in a giant breath….

And blew a giant fireball from the end of his cigar. It spanned the entire room, and thundered along the length of it directly towards me. It was impossible to avoid.

I timed it so the fireball took out the sensors, and then I was in it, on fire. It lasted for just a moment, and then I dropped down into the spiked pit. For a few moments, I held on with my fingers to the edge, and then fell down what felt like 30 feet or more, when my fingers burned off.

For an untold time, all I could feel was a hazy pain. Eventually the fires went out, both upstairs in the corridor room, and on my body. I had known from William's thoughts that the room was coated in a clear flammable paint that caused it to burn for minutes after the fireball went past. The room acted as a giant kiln, baking vampires alive. The only safe place, ironically, was the spike pit, which was untreated.

My fingers and skin regenerated after a time, as did my hair, but my clothes, alas, did not. Naked, I levered myself off of two spikes, which had impaled my abdomen and left thigh. I was lucky – if I'd fallen a few feet to either side, I might have done much more damage.

I waited for the injuries to heal, listening and scanning carefully. I heard nothing, not even the white noise of the Colonel. They were gone. I leapt out of the hole to discover the entire room was coated in thick black soot. It coated my feet as I walked carefully along.

The door I had come in was open. The other door was shut, and wouldn't open. It seemed I was being allowed to leave, but not to pursue. That didn't make any sense. Didn't the Colonel intend to have me killed? Why not finish me off when I lay vulnerable in the pit?

I made my way up to Room 525, and from there to my own room at vampire speed to avoid attracting attention. I showered quickly, to remove the black soot and creosote smell. When I left the bathroom to get my clothes, Josie was sitting there, waiting in her ballgown.

"Hmmm…just like I imagined," she purred. I quickly donned my clothes.

"Why are you here?" I muttered. What kind of game were they playing?

She cocked her head to one side, and sighed. "I'm just here to give you a message."

I stood at the door, with my bag over my shoulder. I didn't look back as she rose to her feet. She glided over to me, and pressed herself up against me from behind. I shuddered in revulsion.

"The Colonel wants you to give Jasper Hale his regards, and tell him to go to hell. He also wants you to know that Kevin is on the 7:05 to Buenos Aires out of Austin International Airport." She pressed lips to my back, despite my jerking movement away. "Happy hunting," she added, letting go.

I opened the door, and shut it again. "Why is he helping me?" I asked.

She sighed, and for a moment, the act seemed to stop. Josie's tone sharpened, and the vixen seemed to melt off her body. "Kevin is real young, only a couple of years old, and the Colonel made him. He's angry at Constance for using Kevin – he's really too young to know any better. Kevin is family, and Constance should have more consideration for family. So the Coronel is writing her off, I guess. He's hoping you'll kill her and free Kevin to return to the family. This way he only loses one child, not two."

She paused, and then continued in her earlier vein, "Of course, he always has me. Unless you have any plans to take me away from all this? No?" she teased with a return of a smile to her voice. "That's okay, I don't want you anyway. You're way too strange – eating animals and taking a human mate. It's best you leave before I forget all that in light of how sexy you are."

"Tell him thank you from me," I muttered, barely able to keep my tone gracious.

"Bye-bye now!" she trilled, as I shut the door.

© 2011 K. Snead