Mark thanked God that the city hadn't changed much. He was able to make his way back into the Quarter easily enough. Once there, he realized what time it was.
Daylight would come soon. He needed to get back to the house on Bourbon Street, steal a few hours of rest and get moving again. It occurred to him that he should be circling the lake looking for Stephan's lair.
It was a huge lake, so he needed to get started early. If he could just get a little sleep and then get going, he could cover a lot of ground.
It wasn't yet morning when he arrived at the house, but he felt every muscle tense as he stared up at the beautiful old manor on Bourbon Street.
It was ablaze with light.
He started to run, opened the gate and sprinted for the front door. He was shocked to find it unlocked.
He pushed it open, then frowned as he closed it and looked around the foyer.
They were all there: Big Jim, Bobby, Stacey, Lauren, Heidi-and Deanna. Along with someone else.
The vampire, bare-chested as Stacey washed his wounds, sat in a chair, evidently describing whatever had brought him to his current state. Deanna was seated at his feet, holding his hand, looking up at him with wide and adoring eyes.
Big Jim and Bobby noticed Mark first, followed by the others. Lauren let out a little cry, staring at him.
"I'm all right; it's...grime, that's all," he said. Then he looked at Jonas and knew his voice was thick with suspicion when he asked, "What the hell happened to you?"
"I killed him!" Jonas said triumphantly.
"Stephan?" Mark said.
Jonas's smile faded. "No," he admitted. "But one of his right hand men. And he's dead now. Deader than a door nail. He went up in a puff of..." He paused, getting a good look at Mark. "Soot," he said weakly.
"He's hurt," Deanna said reproachfully. "Leave him alone."
Mark stared at her sharply. She looked much better than someone who'd just woken up from a coma had a right to.
He stared at Big Jim. "Who let him in?" he demanded. Too harshly, he thought with a wince.
"I did," Deanna said, carefully getting to her feet.
"Oh?" He looked at the others.
Lauren stepped closer, staring at him. She was tall, wearing a plain sleep shirt, yet she looked as elegant as a queen. Her eyes were such a brilliant blue, and her hair was like a cascade of the sun's rays down her back. If she were differently dressed, if it were a different time, she really might have been Katie.
But she wasn't Katie. She was Lauren. Just as beautiful. Articulate, talented, her own person. He knew that. And she had come to mean everything in the world to him.
"I fell asleep," she said. "Then Jonas knocked...and Deanna heard him first."
"I'm glad to see you're doing so well," Mark told Deanna.
"We've got everything under control," Big Jim told him. "In case you want to shower." He looked pointedly at Mark's grimy clothes.
The sun would come up soon, and they did seem to be fine, Mark thought. Apparently Jonas had been in the house for a while, and nothing dire had happened. And Big Jim was there-ready to rip him to pieces if he caused any trouble.
"All right. I'll shower." He turned to Jonas. "Then you and I are going to have a talk."
"He's hurt!" Deanna said again.
"He'll be just fine by the time I'm out of the shower."
"I've got some clean clothes you can wear," Bobby told Jonas. "You might want to wash away some of the stuff on you, too. The blood and the, uh...whatever."
Mark nodded curtly to the lot of them and started up the stairs to his own room, where he stripped off his clothing, knowing he wouldn't wash it or have it cleaned-it was going in the incinerator. He stepped into the shower.
As he turned the water, he heard the door to his room open. And he knew who it was.
He waited, standing beneath the hot spray, grateful for the sheets of water raining down on him. And the heat. The heat seemed to cure all the little aches and pains.
He didn't say anything, just watched her come closer.
"You're angry at everyone, but you shouldn't be. Jonas coming into the house...was my fault."
Finally he said, "He's in now. Fault doesn't matter."
"But I thought you believed Jonas was...good. Not evil."
He ignored her implied question and said, "If you're going to torment me, you might as well get in here."
She hesitated, but a second later she stepped in beside him. The water seemed to heat up a notch. Hotter, harder. No. It wasn't the water. It was his senses. It was her.
Suddenly he didn't care about anything but the moment and having her there and safe.
"I'm sorry," she told him, her arms encircling his back. "Honestly, you don't know how sorry I am," she whispered. She started to speak again, but he turned into her arms and found her lips with his own.
The soot that had covered him was gone. It had washed away down the drain like a bad dream. The heat was good, and Lauren's skin was sleek against him. The soap smelled clean, like the woods, like pine. It was a pleasant, subtle, earthy scent. Like the lithe, supple vitality and life of her in his arms, it was completely arousing. Like the feel of her flesh, so hot and slick, it was an aphrodisiac. The pressure of her body against his was almost unbearable. The taste of her was erotic. He buried himself against her, holding her, kissing her, caressing her curves, everything heightened by the time and place, the water, the heat and the steam. He felt her lips against his flesh, felt her move against him, touch him...God, she knew just how to move against him. Knew when to keep her touch light. Knew when to make it rough.
When and where to caress and kiss and torment...
He lifted her against the tile. She held tight and settled onto him, like liquid steel as she arched and moved and rode to his urging, clinging to his shoulders, legs wrapped tightly around his waist. Her fingers stroked his shoulders and back. Her whispers and kisses fell against his throat and shoulders and earlobes, and when they had both climaxed to the music of the steam and their own heartbeats, she found his lips, desperately clinging while he eased her back to the ground.
And still the spray fell around them.
He held her soaked, glistening body, smoothing back her hair, looking into her eyes.
He almost said the words he had said once before, what seemed like eons ago....
I love you.
But he held back. Instead he cupped her chin and stared at the beauty of her face, the fine lines of her profile sculpted by the water.
"We have to be more careful than ever," he said softly.
She swallowed. "It's my fault. And I was thinking...we should leave."
He felt as if someone were squeezing his heart, but when he spoke, it wasn't because he was afraid. It was because he couldn't bear to let her go.
He spoke the truth.
"It won't help if you leave," he said wearily. "He'll follow you."
Fear lit her eyes, but she blinked it away quickly. "All right. But maybe Heidi and Deanna should go."
Maybe they should, he thought. Except that once they were gone, there would be no Sean Canady, no Bobby Munro, no Stacey and no Maggie, no Big Jim, to keep them safe.
And now Jonas was in the mix, too.
"I'm afraid this has to be solved here, now, or else you'll all be in danger for the rest of your lives," he told her.
And it was the truth.
She lowered her eyes and nodded, her hair teasing his chest.
"I'm not lying just to keep you here," he said softly.
"I know you're not," she told him. "So where do we go from here?"
"We find him. So you're never in danger again."
As he listened to the half-hysterical woman on the street, Sean Canady nodded politely and reminded himself that he had asked to be told when anything odd occurred.
"I'm telling you, the two of them fell from the fourth floor window," she said indignantly. "It's broken. Even a blind man can see that."
The window was broken. That much was for sure. The hotel manager had told him that the room was registered to a Rene Smith. She had listed her address as New York City. Sean wasn't from New York and hadn't spent that much time in the Big Apple, but even he knew there was no such thing as 18th Avenue in Manhattan.
"They fell from the window-and got back up?" one of the detectives with Sean inquired skepticallly.
The woman, who was in her mid-sixties and wrapped in self-righteousness, looked at the officer and inhaled deeply. "I'm telling you what I saw," she said. "With these two eyes."
Sean lowered his head, wincing. The officer who'd spoken was Jerry Merchant. Night shift. Detective Jerry Merchant. This was really his case.
And he knew Jerry. Knew what Jerry was about to say.
"I'm sorry, but do you usually wear glasses?" Jerry asked politely.
Not unexpectedly, the woman exploded. "I wear glasses to read a menu, young man, not to see at a distance. I was right across the street. Over there. And I'm telling you that two people came flying out of that window. They hit the ground. Then the man took one of those construction beams and slammed it into the woman's chest. I saw it."
"You mean like that beam lying in the pile of soot on the sidewalk over there?" Jerry asked.
The woman pursed her lips. "Harry was right next to me. He saw it, too. Didn't you, Harry?" She gave her husband a light smack in the arm with her handbag.
"Uh..." Harry said, looking at his wife and wincing. "I was concentrating on Harrah's-that's where we were headed. It's our fortieth anniversary, right, Sonia?" He attempted a weak smile. If he'd wanted a happy anniversary, he wasn't getting it now.
"Harry! How could you have missed it?" she demanded angrily.
"Honey, if you say they fell from the window, I know they did," Harry said gallantly.
She sniffed. "They're going to be pulling that girl out of the Mississippi, too, you mark my words."
"Now, now, since she would have been dead if a two by four had gone through her chest, she'd have to be here, wouldn't she? They won't be pulling her out of the Mississippi. I'm sure of that," Jerry said.
Sean knew that Jerry was right, but he was also feeling a fair amount of sympathy for Sonia, who had undoubtedly seen it all exactly the way she was telling it.
Which was unnerving. It looked like Mark was right. Stephan had brought an army.
"You have to find that man and arrest him," Sonia said.
"You'll describe him for us, right?" Jerry said.
He was humoring her, thank God, Sean thought.
"Of course. Get me one of those police artists," she said.
"Just give us an overall description, if you will, please. We'll start from there," Jerry said.
At that point Sonia hesitated. Then she sighed. "I think he was tall and dark. That's all I can really say."
The desk clerk chimed in at that point and told them the woman who had taken the room had come back with a man, but he hadn't been dark. He'd been young, college age, and he'd looked like an all-American football hero.
Sean left Jerry and the night crew to their work. Then he started pounding the streets, even though he was afraid he was already too late. Still, it never paid to give up before starting.
Thirty minutes later, he found a tall man with broad shoulders and sandy hair sitting alone in a nearby-and nearly empty-bar. One proudly advertising that it never closed and had remained open throughout hurricane Katrina.
Sean took the seat next to the man, whose fingers were threaded through his hair as he stared into his untouched beer.
"Bad night?" Sean asked.
The guy started and stared at Sean, fear in his eyes. "Uh, yeah. Bad night." He picked up the beer and consumed nearly the whole glass in a single swallow.
"I'm a cop," Sean told him. "What happened."
"I didn't do anything, I swear. I'm an honor student."
"Quarterback?" Sean said.
"You any good?" Sean asked.
"You bet," he said proudly, seeming a little more at ease.
"Want to tell me about tonight?"
"You wouldn't believe me."
"Can a cop buy a guy a beers?"
Sean motioned to the bartender, who set another beer in front of the blond man. "This is it," he said, wincing. "I may never drink again. Worse than that, I may be afraid to get laid for the rest of my life."
"She was gorgeous. We met in some bar. Started talking, drinking. She knew music...we danced. Drank some more. Then she told me she had a room. Next thing I know, she's trying to rip my throat out."
"Some guy bursts into the room and they go at it-and I got the hell out. She was scary crazy. She'd had her teeth sharpened or something. And she must have been on steroids, because she was stronger than any guy I ever met. Stronger than the entire football team."
"What about the guy who burst in on you? What happened to him?"
"I don't know. Like I said, I got the hell out. That's the truth, I swear it. Please...that's all I know. I've never run so fast in my life. Please, don't arrest me. I wasn't doing anything illegal."
"I'm not going to arrest you," Sean told him.
The kid lowered his head. "After this bear, I'll never drink again, and I'll never pick up a strange girl again, either. I don't care how good she looks."
Sean set a hand on the other man's shoulder. "I wouldn't go telling all your buds on the team about this, if I were you."
The young man looked at him with sheer horror. "Oh, God, no!"
"Good. Here's my card. You have any more trouble, give me a call."
"Thanks." The kid offered his hand. "I'm Nate Herman. And...thanks. I don't know who that guy was, but...he saved my life. I'm telling you, she had fangs. And she wanted to rip my throat out."
"Why don't you finish up that beer and I'll drop you off at your dorm?"
When they left, the sun was coming up.
Sean was relieved but still wary.
The sun was no guarantee the world was a safe place. He knew that all too well.
Lauren wouldn't have believed it was possible, but she actually fell back to sleep. Mark was glad; she had seemed keyed up but, beneath that, extremely tired.
As for Deanna...
With Jonas in the house, she seemed to have made a miraculous recovery. The nurse who'd come by a little while ago had told them that she didn't think Deanna needed continued medical visitations. That was a relief, Mark thought. He didn't like having outsiders in the house.
It was midmorning before he got the chance to talk to Jonas. And that was after he spent some time on the phone with Sean Canady, who asked him to try hard not to break any more windows. Or to fall four floors from a building and then put a stake through what appeared to be a young woman's heart in public.
"Glad you're all right," Sean said as the conversation drew to a close. "And, by the way, I've asked Maggie to stop by Montresse House later today. She can take some of the stress off the others, let them have a little break."
Mark let out a breath, thinking how grateful he was to the cop. With Maggie in the house, he wouldn't be so worried about leaving. He felt tremendous faith in this woman who had actually been a vampire, thought he still didn't understand how it was possible that she had reverted to humanity.
I never actually died, she had told him.
Therein must lie the difference. He'd seen a lot through the years, but nothing like Maggie Canady. However, once they had talked, he hadn't been able to doubt her.
"All right, where were you?" he asked Jonas, when he was alone with him at the kitchen table at last.
"I'd been at the hospital, and something didn't seem right."
Jonas looked at him, cocking his head at an angle. "I just...sensed something wasn't right. So I went into the hallway and I saw a doctor. But he wasn't a doctor, you know? Anyway, I started following him. He headed out to the parking garage. It was a trap. A whole gang of them lit on me. I managed to get away, but I was messed up pretty bad, and I didn't think I'd make it. Anyway, I must have passed out. I wound up in the emergency room. As soon as I could, I escaped, but by then...the whole hospital had gone nuts. I was on my way here, 'cuz I overheard someone saying Deanna had been taken here, when I ran into Stephan's...general, I guess you'd call him. And I took him out."
Jonas sounded proud, and if what he said was true, Mark supposed he had a right to. But was it true?
Or was it all a clever act?
Mark leaned back, staring at him. He looked fine right now, wearing one of Bobby's freshly pressed shirts and chinos.
What he looked like didn't mean a damned thing.
"So how are you doing now?" Mark asked.
"Good. I'm in good shape," Jonas said.
Mark drummed his fingers on the table, studying the man. He wasn't leaving him here. Not when he was going out, even if Maggie Canady was coming by.
"So you think Stephan got into the hospital by dressing up in a doctor's uniform?"
"I'm willing to bet. Who wouldn't open the door for a doctor?"
Mark pulled out his cell phone and made a call to the hospital. He asked for Leticia Lockwood's room.
Judy Lockwood answered. She sounded pleased to hear his voice. "Leticia seems to be doing much better. She isn't actually coherent yet, but she has opened her eyes a few times. She seems bewildered, poor dear. But we're just fine. Mighty kind of you to ask."
He hesitated, then said, "Judy, you have to be careful about letting anyone into the room-including the doctors. Never actually ask anyone in, okay?"
He heard her soft chuckle on the other end. "Silly man, I know that," she assured him. "And I have that nice officer's card if I get worried, and your number, too. Don't you go being worried about me. I know what I'm up against"
"I'm glad to hear it, Ms. Lockwood. Thank you."
He closed his phone, studying Jonas again.
"We're going to take a ride."
"Shouldn't I stay here?"
"You still don't trust me."
"I don't know you."
Jonas shrugged. "Fair enough. Where are we going?"
"I told you. For a ride. No questions. You still look a little rough around the edges, so you can rest while I drive."
"Mind if I tell Deanna I'm going out?"
"Sure. I'll walk you up there."
He watched from the hallway while Jonas went in to talk to Deanna. Heidi was sitting with her, which didn't seem to be the safest combination in the world, but Big Jim was there, too, so he decided things would probably be fine.
He left Jonas to his goodbyes and went into his own room.
Lauren was still sound asleep in his bed. She was so beautiful, her hair like sunshine splashed across the pillows. He leaned down and kissed her brow. She smiled, as if, even in her sleep she was aware he was there.
He met Jonas in the hallway. "Let's go," he said.
"I'm right behind you."
"I like it better when you're right in front of me," Mark countered.
Once they were out of the city, Jonas looked at him. "What are you looking for?" he asked.
Mark hesitated. "Anything that looks like it's been abandoned but's suddenly in use. Like a car in front of a condemned building, anything like that."
"Like beer bottles on an overgrown lawn?" Jonas asked.
"Yeah, exactly," Mark said.
"Turn around then. We just passed one."
Lauren was surprised when she woke and walked into Deanna's room to find Deanna asleep and a strange woman sitting with her. She had auburn hair, darker than her own, and fantastic eyes that seemed both green and gold. She had been reading, but she set her book down and stood.
"Hi. You have to be Lauren. I'm Maggie Canady."
"The lieutenant's wife?"
"Yes." Maggie offered her a hand, and Lauren took it. "Actually, I think I've seen you before."
"Oh?" Lauren murmured warily. Had this woman known Katie, too?
"You've been in my shop. I own a clothing store."
"Oh, my God, yes!" Lauren said. She should have recognized the woman's face, she thought. There was a painting of her in the store, wearing a costume. Civil War era, Lauren thought. It was a beautiful painting. She had admired it often.
"Great shop. I go there practically every time I come here. I feel like I've been going there since I was a child."
"It's been in the family," Maggie said.
Deanna moved on the bed but didn't awaken.
"She looks great," Maggie said. "Especially for being nearly drained by a vampire."
Lauren blinked. "You...know?"
"Yes, and I'm here to help," Maggie told her. "Trust me, I know what I'm doing."
There was something about the way she spoke; Lauren did believe her.
"I'm glad you're here. Is...Mark still here?"
"He left with Jonas."
"Asleep in her own room." Maggie smiled. "It's a very tired household this morning. Bobby is puttering around in the kitchen. At least he's awake." She smiled. "He's assigned to watch the house. I'm not sure how Sean manages stuff like that with his superiors on the force, but...he's a good cop, and they give him a lot of leeway."
Lauren nodded, feeling more secure knowing there were cops who knew what to watch out for. Mark had been right. They didn't dare leave until Stephan was stopped. She was more afraid than ever, after last night, certain that sooner or later he would find her.
"Well, I'm awake, but I have to admit, going back to sleep this morning was wonderful. Right now, though, I need to go to the library."
Maggie frowned instantly. "You can't go anywhere alone."
"Since Big Jim and Bobby are here, do you want to come with me?" She smiled. "I'm willing to bet there are tanks of holy water in this house. I have a water pistol-and I know how to use it," she said lightly. "I'm sure you do, too."
Maggie looked thoughtful as she studied Lauren and said, "I have a feeling you're going to the library with or without company. Why?"
"There's something I have to look up. It's important. This all began with a fortune-teller. She made a few comments about things I need to know."
Maggie's brow furrowed. "It's so important that you'd leave the house now?"
"Yes," Lauren said firmly.
"All right. I'll get Big Jim up here. We'll go together. Go get your purse, or whatever you'll need. I'll meet you downstairs in a minute."
Apparently there really was a vat of holy water in the house somewhere, because when Lauren got downstairs, Maggie was supplied with a number of water pistols, four in all, two for each of them. She handed Lauren a small container of something else.
"What's this?" Lauren asked.
"Toothpicks," Maggie explained.
"Toothpicks?" Lauren repeated, confused.
"They don't kill, but they hurt a vampire like hell. Especially if you catch one in the eyes. I always keep a few in my pockets. So...you wearing your cross?"
"Are you two off?" Bobby Munro asked, coming in from the kitchen. "I'm not sure this is such a great idea. Don't be gone for more than a few hours," he said firmly.
Maggie laughed. "Don't worry, Bobby. I have to be back before church camp ends. My kids," she explained to Lauren. "I have three. And I wouldn't leave them at all right now if it weren't for church camp."
"Call," Bobby said. "If you need me."
"You bet," Maggie assured him.
With a wave, she started out the door. Lauren gave Bobby a cheerful wave, as well, and followed.
Mark made a U-turn. A minute later he saw the place Bobby had been talking about. It was dark, two storied, and looked as if it had been built in the Victorian era. There had once been a wrap-around porch, but most of it was gone now. There was still evidence of ginger-breading on the trim. One step leading up to the front door was gone.
But the lawn showed signs of activity.
A rum bottle. Two beer cans and a half dozen beer bottles.
As they walked across the lawn, Mark noticed that someone had recently created a makeshift barbecue; an old oven grill had been placed between sticks over a bed of coals.
"Are they cooking their meat?" Jonas murmured.
"I don't know what they're cooking," Mark muttered in reply and stared at Jonas. "Are you ready?"
Jonas lifted the flashlight, heavy hammer and the shoulder bag of stakes he was carrying, taken from the trunk of Mark's car. Mark was similarly armed.
"I take it you always travel with these?" Jonas asked.
"What happens if you get pulled over for a traffic stop?"
"So far, it hasn't happened," Mark told him. "Let's go."
He looked up at the sky, glad that it was one of those days when the sun was brilliantly shining. The house was close to the water; the ground underfoot was soft. When they reached the porch, he lifted his foot and checked his shoe.
The sole was covered with marshy mud and strands of grass.
Just as Leticia's white nurse's shoes had been.
"Go on," Mark said.
Jonas stared at him, shaking his head ruefully. "Sure, I'll go first. Though if I were a traitor, that would just make it easier for me to warn the others."
"Maybe. But you alsowouldn't be behind me, ready to trap me," Mark replied. "Go."
Jonas preceded him up the stairs, ably-and silently-leaping over the missing step. He landed on the porch. When he tried the door, it was locked.
He looked back at Mark, who came up beside him and nodded.
"Count of three?" Jonas asked.
"Why not?" Mark said quietly.
Jonas mouthed the count, and then they rammed the door together. It opened, and they were in the house.
An eerie darkness rose to meet them, along with the fetid stench of death.