MEGAN STOOD IN the middle of the cemetery, feeling the faint stirring of the breeze and looking around, wondering where to begin. The cemetery was relatively new. And yet, it was new at a time when the death toll was staggering. Across the country-or both countries-women waited at railroad stations for the post to come in, to read the lists of newly fallen, and pray that their beloved husbands, sons and brothers were not on those lists.
Many injured returned home. And died.
Disease was rampant.
Prospect Hill had been created when the law had stated that new burials must take place beyond city boundaries for such reasons. Technically, it was owned by the Men's Evangelical Society of Concordia Church; it had been consecrated in 1858, and it officially opened the following year. It wasn't a soldier's cemetery, but since Washington had been the staging ground for the First Battle of Bull Run, as the Union called it, the First Manassas, as the Confederates called it, many local sons had died very early on.
Now graves were dug in expectation, but those who had been destined to reside within them might never do so. Exigencies meant that far too many men had to be buried where they fell. Some remains would be retrieved at later dates; some would remain where they had fallen forever.
She was alone with Cole on the mission; the day was not long enough for their small party to cover the many places that came to mind after they had attended to the victims who had been murdered during the night. It had been Cole himself who finally realized that they needed to split up, and since it seemed most prudent that she and Cody be split-since they could easily endure the bite of a vampire and return to tell any tale-he had either begun to trust her, or he'd still rather risk himself than Brendan Vincent.
"Where do we begin," Cole murmured at her side, looking out across the vast and lonely expanse of the grounds.
"I think we need to wait a moment. There are several families here-look, just behind that little hill. There are people at that grave."
He nodded. "It's very new. No marker as yet." She was startled when he suddenly took her arm. "Let's stroll. We'll appear to be seeking the grave of a father or brother."
She nodded, surprised to feel a sensation of quickening within her, and aware of the warmth in his form, the strength of his hold.
"So," he said. "Not long ago, I wouldn't have believed that I could ask such a thing, but...did you always know that you were a vampire?"
He asked the question lightly, as if it were casual conversation.
"To tell you the truth, I'm not sure exactly what we are, Cody and I," she replied. "I can be injured, and I do age. I heal overnight when I am injured, that's true. And I have survived when I should have died. But I have a heart that beats, I breathe."
He paused, looking down at her, and she was surprised that he almost seemed to be smiling. "That's-wonderful. But it's not the answer to my question."
She shrugged. "Well, I don't remember my infancy. I remember that I was always extremely fond of a rare steak, and that my mother always had me drink a strange concoction. I suppose the day she actually talked to me was when I was very young and had been punished at school."
"You were punished because..."
"Samuel was a bully. He was always teasing my friend Sally, who limped. She'd been born with one leg a bit shorter than the other. Samuel teased her horribly. And he was cruel to her. He'd walk by and make her drop her books. He'd trip her."
"Ah. Not at all a gentleman," Cole noted.
"One day he sat behind her. He didn't just dip her hair in an inkwell-he managed to jump up and dump the entire thing all over her. He pretended it was all a massive mistake and he didn't even get in trouble. So, when we were out playing and he started calling her Blue Face, I charged him. He and I started to fight and there were kids all around us, cheering for one or the other of us. He started to take a real swing at me and I ducked and then..."
"I bit him."
"And what happened? Children do bite when they're tussling on the school grounds."
She shook her head, looking straight before her, and then meeting his eyes again.
"I liked it. I liked the flow of his blood into my mouth, and I didn't want to let him go. Our teacher had to get help to drag me off him, and when my mother came for me...she was horrified and upset, and she sat me down that afternoon and told me about my father, but she said that he was a good man, and that...I had to use my powers for good, as well."
"You believe that your father is a good man-still?"
"You don't-do you? Nor does Cody. But I believe it with all my heart."
"Because my mother was a good woman, and she wouldn't have lied to me."
Cole lifted her chin, and his touch was gentle. He stood there, studying her eyes.
"You believe in Cody, don't you? I believed in him before I met him. When I read the articles in the papers about the outlaws in the West-I knew that Cody was the son my mother had told my father about."
Cole laughed. "The name Cody Fox didn't tell you that?"
"Fox is a common enough name," she said.
Cole still seemed to be wearing a dry half smile. "What happened to Samuel Reeves?" he asked.
"Nothing. He stayed home from school for a few days-sick. I was punished for the rest of the year-I wasn't allowed to play with the other children. But, Samuel never teased my friend Sally again. Ever."
"And did you bite anyone else? Ever?"
"Only when I've had to-and only in self-defense, and only vampires."
"They're leaving," Cole said, pointing ahead. Visitors who had been praying at graves were heading for the gates.
"We'll have to split up and start walking fast," Megan said. The ever-so-slightly-civil-almost-tender moment they had shared was gone. He had become all business. She could certainly do the same. "Look for disturbed earth."
"I know what I'm doing. You head easterly, and I'll go west. Try to keep visual contact with me."
"Of course. I won't let you get hurt," she promised sweetly.
"You're Cody's sister. I'll look after you," he responded over his shoulder.
"As you like, cowboy," she said lightly, aware that her teasing response was patronizing but unable to help herself from making the statement. She didn't want anyone getting hurt looking after her; she was what she was.
She was alarmed to realize that the day was quickly waning. And it was disheartening to know that they had fought so hard the day before-and that at least one of the creatures had escaped.
She could see Cole at a distance, long strides taking him swiftly across the cemetery. She saw when he paused and reached into his coat for one of his slender honed stakes, then switched it backward to dig in the ground.
She waited to see if he had made a discovery.
She watched as he swiftly found the mallet in his inner coat pocket, and slammed the stake downward, honed side first. He drew out his bowie knife and she turned her head.
It seemed that he was quite competent at what he did. He was seeing to it that for certain the creature would not come back. If diseased men had died, they were vampires, or would be soon, and they couldn't be given a chance to rise again.
There was a group of trees ahead of her and she continued walking toward them. As she neared the little copse, she felt her muscles suddenly stiffen, and it seemed that the breeze blew chill against her flesh.
She saw a shadow, something, like a wisp of movement through the trees, almost a trick of the eyes.
The sun had not yet fallen, though it was sinking low in the western sky. A sense of great unease filled her. She was suddenly certain that they hadn't taken down even the majority of the vampires in the prison; in fact, she wondered if the prison had been nothing more than a prelude to a huge infection about to overrun the entire capital city.
Then she wondered if something hadn't been acting on her to lure her into the trees....
She held her ground, dead still and waiting.
Shadows moved again.
She refused to be trapped. She wanted the creatures out in the open.
And so she stood. Dead still.
And finally noticed the first of the shadows coming for her.
Young vampire. It approached as a shadow, slowly, but quickly turned. Her stomach became a knot. It was a young Rebel soldier. His uniform. His face. He barely had a beard. But he came at her, and she had no choice. She ducked and turned, grabbing him by the shoulders, and hitting his jugular-as he tried to do the same to her.
She had barely ripped at his throat before the next shadow fell upon her. She reached into her skirt pocket, then stabbed a stake into his heart. Before that one had even fallen, another was after her, this one in the uniform of a Union prison guard. She ripped the stake from the one body to strike into the heart of the other-
And saw more shadows and figures, bloody and gaunt, dressed well and in tatters, coming from the woods.
At least ten of them.
A chill at the back of her neck and she knew something was behind her. She spun to tend to the attack. Speed was everything; she had to be prepared to defend herself from those coming at her from the woods. She wanted to call for Cole, but with their speed and her breath seizing in rhythm with her movements, it was too much all at once.
The thing behind her was little but flesh and bone. He went down quickly, having used whatever fledgling strength it had to become shadow and slip behind her. She faced the trees again, with trepidation. There were so many of them. They had never imagined so many.
In a fleeting second, she saw that something more was in the copse of trees. A greater shadow, a darker shadow. Fear set a cold grip around her heart, and yet, even as she felt the terror, she realized that the shadow-thing, only noticeable because it was even darker than the rest of the blackening night sky-it was actually battling the creatures within the trees, preventing them from spilling out to assail her.
She heard Cole's cry as she met the Union sergeant running toward her.
Cole ran past her and into the fray precisely prepared. He held a stake in one hand, and a bottle of holy water in the other. When two of the beings fell upon her at once, she'd have to admit that only because one of them was stunned by the holy water did she survive. She struck out with her stake, and then struck again. Cole was moving expertly at her side. Despite the massive ebony wing of the giant shadow-thing in the trees, at least six more of the beings escaped the copse of trees and came at them.
But she wasn't fighting alone anymore.
One by one, they went down.
She was fighting with Cole. And the black shadow had saved them from the full force of the mismatched army in the woods.
Suddenly, there was nothing.
She and Cole had set their backs to each other, and together, they had fended off every assault; they had actually been an awesome force.
They remained still, tense and waiting. She could hear the thunder of his heart, and the heave of his breath as they waited.
That, and nothing more.
When she looked to the trees, there was nothing.
"It's over," she whispered softly.
Around them lay a field of rotting dead. Blue uniforms, gray, butternut. They wore insignias that denoted them as militia, captains, privates, Army of the Potomac. The Southern boys were mostly in rags.
"Wait, keep an eye on the trees," Cole warned.
"No. There is nothing more there."
"How do you know that?"
She turned to look at him at last. "Because we weren't alone, Cole. Someone was in among the creatures there, someone who helped us."
He shook his head. His words sounded harsh. "No, Megan. Why do you think that Brendan Vincent went to find your brother in the first place? A staunch Federalist seeking the help of a Rebel doctor? You and Cody are anomalies. A vampire is a predator. A disease. A mass of infection. A parasite that must thieve blood to survive."
"You're wrong. Some can be...nearly human," she said.
Cole paused, and she knew that she had struck a chord with him. She didn't know what had really gone on in Victory, Texas, but she was pretty sure that Cole had seen infected people become decent vampires. He had to know it could happen.
"This thing could just have been some kind of a trick, or even a trick of your eyes," he told her. "What exactly did you see?"
She wanted to explain, but when she opened her mouth, all she could think of to describe what she had seen was, "A shadow."
"Megan, they come as shadows, they can move like the wind. You know that. You've done it, I'm sure." She was surprised when he touched her arm, gently. "This is our battle," he said. "It would be nice to think that others were helping, but it's doubtful. And we've got to get moving here-we have a bit of a problem."
She looked around at the fallen. The corpses were far too new to have dissolved to ash.
"Good point. How do we explain all these dead?"
"And how long do we dare stay here without...without reinforcements?" he asked. "The sun is falling. We have to make sure that we've completely dispatched all these men, and then we have to get out of here. I'll find Lisette and have her see that the burial detail that cleaned up at the prison gets here, too. We've got to get back to Cody and Brendan and find out what they discovered today. Hopefully we got a fair number of the loose vampires here."
She nodded. She didn't know why, but she felt a sting of tears in her eyes. So many dead! It was war, and men were dying every day. But this... Her heart went out to the beings she had taken down. The Rebels that lay dead had endured battle and capture, but not this unnatural thing.
They shouldn't have ended this way.
"Disease," Cole said sadly, looking down at a soldier. "Ah, yes, Cody told me once that disease and infection killed far more men than bullets. I guess he's right. The gangrene and the vampire diseases, both."
Wincing, Megan silently agreed, and together they hurriedly made sure that the "diseased" could not come back to strike again.
The sun was almost completely down. They hurried from the cemetery, hitching a ride into the city on a medical supply wagon. They sat in the back, on a flatbed filled with crates, forced to nearly sit atop each other.
But it wasn't a bad position, Megan thought. She was tired, and the afternoon had left her worried and confused. Her fears of a greater threat came to the fore again, and she considered mentioning something to Cole, weighing her combat-born fears against rational thoughts....
And was surprised when Cole once again took her hand from where it lay on her knee and squeezed it.
She was more surprised, at herself, when she leaned against his shoulder to rest.
He didn't move away.
THEY ARRIVED AT THE BOARDINGHOUSE to find that the rest of their party had had an uneventful day. Cody and Brendan had scoured the churches with burial grounds, but had run out of daylight time to go on to the other cemeteries.
Brendan Vincent announced he would head to the small office of the Pinkerton agency, which dealt with many secret matters of state, so as to see that the cemetery was cleaned of the evidence of combat before morning.
Before letting Brendan go, Cody hunkered down by his wife and asked, "Alex, do you think that it's safe?"
Megan was surprised by Cody, Alex and the question.
Alex hesitated before answering him. "Cody, you know that-that I can't see things on command."
He nodded. "I was hoping that you might have a sense."
"I'm not feeling that it's unsafe. I was worried when you all left this morning, but that was quite natural, don't you think? I can't conjure a vision of the cemetery, but...I don't think we have a choice, do we?"
Cody looked at her awhile longer, smiled and nodded. "All right, Brendan. We don't have much of a choice."
"One of us should go with the crew," Cole said. "Me, I suppose. I know where...I know where the corpses lie."
"Well, that's foolish. If we did miss any of the creatures, you'll be as vulnerable as any of the men," Megan told him. "I can go."
"You were falling asleep on the way back," Cole said. "I'll go. You must have realized by now that I do know exactly what I'm up against and how to fight this enemy." He was irritated when he first started speaking, but she supposed, even if she did have a natural immunity, she ruffled his pride when she suggested that he wasn't competent-or that he didn't have the strength. He spoke more gently when he added, "You were fighting that bunch several minutes before I reached you. You have to be far more worn-out. I'll go."
Megan frowned, wanting to protest, but Cody put an end to that. "He knows what he's doing, Megan. Let him handle the situation."
Cody left with Brendan. Alex rose. "I have a plate of supper for you, Megan. I saved a plate for Cole, too, but...anyway. You need to have dinner. And sustenance."
Sustenance appeared to be a steaming cup of tomato soup; she knew that it was not. But though Megan hadn't thought that she was hungry, she was famished.
Cody went out while she was eating. Alex stood looking out the window in the boardinghouse kitchen; there was an actual kitchen building behind the house, but Martha had put in a sink with a water pump and a stove when she had begun letting out rooms. Megan knew that when she wasn't cooking breakfast for a household of guests inside the house, she prepared food for her children and herself in the kitchen building out back.
Alex seemed anxious as she peered out.
Then she turned and smiled. "Cody is taking a few precautions. He's setting up an alarm system, arranging crosses, sprinkling holy water around Martha's little carriage house, as well."
"Thank God," Megan said.
Alex smiled at her, a twinkle of amusement in her eyes. "You knew Martha before you were brought here, didn't you?"
Caught off guard, Megan nodded. "I was afraid to say so. Brendan Vincent is so staunch a Unionist, I was afraid he would think that Martha was a Confederate spy if I let on that we knew each other."
"Is she a spy?" Alex asked.
"No," Megan said, with a stone-serious expression Alex could not misinterpret.
Alex smiled and took a seat at the table across from Megan.
"But you are."
Megan shook her head. "I was a courier, and sometimes I carried information that fell into my lap. I was never actually a spy. And now...well, we're all fighting a different war." Megan looked at the woman, staring into her eyes. "Your turn, Alex, please. What was Cody talking about when he asked you if it was going to be safe for Brendan and Cole?"
Alex sat back. She was quiet for a minute. "I have dreams. I see things that happen, or may happen. When I can, I try to prevent them from happening. Actually, I was once brought in for being a spy, but-" she smiled "-I became friends with the U.S. government instead."
"Who?" Megan demanded, wondering if highest government and military leaders in the land really understood the reality and seriousness of the vampire situation.
"We're not totally sure we trust you yet, you know," Alex replied.
"I am Cody's sister."
Alex smiled, curling her fingers around the cup of tea she had poured for herself. "I believe that biologically, yes, you're his sister. But this country is currently full of brothers who grew up in the same house, loving the same two parents, going to war against one another. I've personally seen this travesty ripping apart the country. So, whether we all believe you're Cody's sister is rather a moot point. None of us knows you."
"Martha knows me. And you know Martha, too, don't you?"
Alex laughed. "Yes, I do. I know a lot of people in Washington."
"Then ask Martha about me," Megan suggested with both force and exasperation at this tension between them.
"I'll probably do that."
They sat in silence for some minutes, whatever had spiked up between them dissipating for the most part. Though questions still remained.
"And you do trust some vampires," Megan said.
"Some," Alex agreed, smiling. She hesitated for a moment. "Actually, I have good reason to believe in the goodness of some vampires-as do Cody, Cole and Brendan." She stood. "You are looking a bit worse for wear. Why, actually, you look like you've been digging in a cemetery. I had the tub filled in the back kitchen. I'll add some water and you can take a bath."
"I'm not going to take your bath," Megan protested.
"Oh, seriously, I insist. You look like you need it much more than I do!" Alex told her. "I'll put more water on to boil."
It would be good to take a long, hot bath.
Alex provided her with a nightdress and robe and a cake of her own soap; it smelled deliciously of lavender. It seemed such a luxury that night-she hadn't seen decent soap in a long time. It was growing scarce in the South.
Cody was putting the final touches on a bell-and-wire alarm system on the carriage house where Martha slept with her children. Megan made a mental note to find time with Martha alone in the morning; she didn't know what Martha knew about Cody and Alex Fox and their friends, Brendan Vincent and Cole Granger. She thought she'd be much better prepared for whatever might come if she studied up on her new associates.
She carried the water to the tub herself, determined not to let Alex tote it for her on top of the kindness she'd shown already. Once she was in the external kitchen, she bolted the door and noted the many windows she had never much paid attention to before. They were closed, the drapes drawn. It was nice. She was beginning to feel as if she was being watched far too easily.
She had never been afraid, not since she had bitten Samuel. Then her mother had sat her down to explain that she was a being of free choice, and that she must choose for herself, but that using her strength for good would certainly prove to be the best thing to do, at least in the long run. Once the war had begun, she hadn't thought much about what she was; she had thought about little but the men on the field who needed help so desperately. The Minie ball and the other amazing rifle technology in the North had made it certain that many soldiers would be shot, and that most of those hit would die. She'd left Richmond with the Army of Northern Virginia, always on the lookout for the brother she knew had to be out there somewhere. She'd heard he was in New Orleans, and she'd planned to go there. But then a courier told her that he had gone out West, and that he was some kind of a hero in a town called Victory.
Impatient with herself, she dropped her lace-up boots and her muddied outfit to the floor and sank into the water. It wasn't as warm as she would have liked it, but it was delicious anyway.
And the soap! The sweet scent of lavender was a true wonder.
She leaned back and simply enjoyed the scent and the feel of cleanliness, closing her eyes and letting the water ease around her.
Then she heard a knock at the door.
She stiffened, then relaxed. "Alex? Come on in."
She had bolted the door, she remembered. "I'm coming. Hang on just a minute, please."
She hesitated, though. There had been no response from whoever had knocked at the door. Someone tried to twist the door handle. She heard the sound. She saw it move. But it was bolted.
There was another noise.
Now at the side window.
At the rear window.
Megan scrambled to her feet. She hopped out of the tub just as she heard the shattering of glass.
And saw the figure of a man crawling heedlessly through the shards of the windowpane that clung to the frame.
He was wearing butternut and gray. A Confederate Uniform worn by the Virginia Regulars. His uniform was worn and frayed on his gaunt, tall frame. Creeping menacingly from beneath his hat, a straggly beard, green eyes and dusty brown hair.
She knew him.
He laughed, staring at her, and she realized she was still dripping wet, and naked. She grabbed the bright white towel and covered herself haphazardly.
When he spoke, his voice was strange.
"You! Ah, you, Megan Fox. Imagine. I smelled the intoxicating scent of blood...and it's you! How delicious. Now, I know. And now, I have the strength, and the power-and the hunger!"
She blinked, unable to believe her eyes-or ears. And, yet...
Not so strange, not so ridiculous. So many of the young men her own age had answered the call to war- Virginians, fighting for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
He opened his mouth.
His fangs dripped saliva.
She knew this man-thing.
"Samuel Reeves!" she gasped.