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Mark Davidson watched the couple at the bar, who seemed to be like any couple at any bar.
The man leaned toward the woman. She was pretty, in a tube top that displayed sculpted abs and a short skirt that afforded a long look at longer legs. She batted her lashes now and then, lowering her head, offering a shy, even rueful, smile to the man at her side. He was tall, and dark. Despite his apparent ease with her flirtation, there seemed to be a tenseness in him, a leashed energy that, to Mark, at least, suggested something wasn't quite right.
The couple laughed together, teased each other. Body language. She'd been looking for something that evening; he'd definitely been set on action.
"Another drink, sir?" Momentarily, he was distracted by the waitress, an attractive but older woman with large eyes and a nice figure. Her voice was polite but also weary, he thought. Maybe it hadn't been easy for her over the past few years.
" He wasn't sure why she was asking. He'd barely touched the beer he'd ordered earlier. Then again, they needed to make money here, so maybe it was just a hint.
"Sorry, I guess you don't," she said with a little sigh.
He had a feeling she was a native. Her accent was richly Southern. Not that New Orleans was a city where only natives could be found. It was the kind of place people simply fell in love with, as if it had a personality all its own. Of course, some people loathed the city's free-and-easy spirit, and, he had to admit, the vomit in the streets after a particularly wild night during Mardi Gras wasn't exactly a selling point. None of that mattered to him. He loved the place, the narrow streets, the old buildings and the mixture of cultures. He loved everything about the place.
Oh, yeah. He loved everything about the place, except for
The waitress was blocking his view, he realized. He had chosen a back table, in the shadows. He was away from the jazz band playing to the far left of the bar, near the entrance. The group was great; Mark would have happily come here just to listen to them. That was one of the things he loved most about New Orleans; some of the best music in the world could be heard here, often just by walking along the streets. Young talent, fine talent, often began their careers playing in Jackson Square or right on any street corner, performing in the hope that the passersby would toss their dollars in a guitar case or a hat.
There was so much to love about New Orleans.
Like the many times he had come here with Katie
He took a long swallow of the beer in front of him, lukewarm now, and gritted his teeth. He wasn't here to walk down memory lane.
"Sure, yeah, another beer. Cold, please," he said, trying to look around the waitress. But when she moved, he saw that the couple at the bar had gone.
He leaped to his feet and dug into his pocket for a bill. He handed it to her.
"Never mind," he said, heading for the door.
"Sir, your change," she protested, staring at the fifty he'd handed her.
"Keep it," he murmured, his eyes already riveted on the door to the street.
Out there the world was bright, alive with neon, laughter and the dueling beats of jazz and rock, as the music from the bars and clubs lining the sidewalks spilled into the humid air. Flashing lights advertised all manner of drinks and entertainment; old buildings seemed to peer at the rush of people with a haunting, even if decayed, elegance, despite their cloaks of commercialism.
Men and women, groups, duos, even singles, meandered down the street, some slowly, slightly inebriated, bumping into one another as they walked. Others moved with purpose.
He didn't see the couple from the bar, and he swore bitterly to himself.
Where the hell would the man have taken the girl? It wasn't as if he had to commit murder in a darkened cemetery; he could have rented a room anywhere. Hell, he might even have a place of his own here. Where? Alone, he might have moved as quickly as the wind. But he had the woman with him, slowing him down.
He turned. The waitress had followed him.
"I said to keep the change," he said gently.
She smiled. "The bartender said the couple you were watching went left. The guy talked her into a late-night cemetery visit." She shrugged, a soft and thankful glow in her eyes. "Lots of assholes trying to pick up women convince them to slip into the cemeteries at night. Risky business. Drug dealers hang out thereand worse. You take care."
"Thanks," he told her. "Thank you."
Now that he had a direction, he started running down the street. So much for thinking the guy might just opt for a hotel room or the courtyard of some nice bed-and-breakfast.
As he ran, he patted a hand against the pocket of his chinos. He could feel the vial. He was armed, as wellconventionally armedbut he knew that wouldn't mean a damned thing, given what he was up against.
He reached the cemetery. Entry at night was illegal, but he scaled the fence easily, landing with a soft thud on the other side.
As he did, he heard the laughter. They were deeper into the grounds, behind the chipping stone and plaster of an aboveground tomb, with its sad angels and praying cherubs.
"Ooh, this is decadent. Creepy, and kind of exciting," a female voice said.
"Yes. I know."
"You want to
here? Right here?" she whispered. Her voice sounded a little uncertain. Now that she had come to the cemetery, perhaps she was feeling a little bit bothered by such disrespect for the dead. Or maybe it was fear of getting caughtby the police.
"You tell me," the man answered. "Do you want to feel my lips touch your flesh?"
The girl made a sound Mark couldn't identify, and he clenched his jaw tightly, seeking to control the pain and fury that swept through him. He didn't blame the girl. She might as well have been hypnotized.
"I want. .yes
." she murmured.
Mark crept closer. There they were.
The man had stripped off his shirt. The girl was stretched out on top of one of the tombs, her bare torso glistening beneath the moonlight. The man was bent over her, his hand stroking the length of her legs, his lips teasing the bare flesh of her midriff.
"Wait, please!" There was fear in the girl's voice now.
"You're very pretty
. We could have had so much more fun first. Excitement like you've never imagined. Too bad that tonight
well, I'm really hungry. It's been a while for me, I'm afraid."
She was gasping out another protest. She had just realized she was about to die, Mark knew, and she was trying hard to scream. But terror, as sweet as sugar in the blood, was beginning to fill her, and she couldn't choke out the agony trapped in her throat.
Mark inhaled, tensing. She would be dead any second now if he didn't act. He reached into his pocket. He sprang.
He was in terrific shape, having served with the Marines before putting in several years as a bouncer while getting his own music sold. Even so, as fast as he was, the man sensed his approach. He heard the snarl of rage before he saw the man at the tomb swirl around, ready to meet him, a horrible, twisted mask of fury on his face. He saw the mouth open, the glint of the fanglike teeth in the darkness. Oddly enough, they had a fascinating opalescent glow.
He swore softly to himself. This wasn't the same man he had been trailing with such dogged determination. It was another, no doubt equally as bad.
His heart sank. And yet.
This creature was about to kill. He had to remember justicehad to put it above revenge. He couldn't let his guard down; he couldn't falter for an instant.
Before he could reach the creature, however, the man gave a harsh laugh of amusement. "Going to shoot me?" he demanded.
"Hell, no," Mark assured him. His vial was full, and it was open. He aimed directly into the face and eyes of his opponent.
It let out a bloodcurdling cry of rage and astonishment as the holy water bathed its features. There was a flutter of shadow and darkness, a weak flapping of wings. It took off and crashed hard into a tomb.
Mark followed it. He drew the small but sharply honed stake he always carried from his pocket, then skewered the mix of shadow and substance and bat wings by the tomb.
There was a burst of misty color in the night. Dust exploding in the air, crimson with the blood of many lifetimes.
The flapping stopped. For a moment there was something of the darkened essence of a man by the grave
then there was nothing. Dirt and ash. Dust to dust.
He stood there, just staring, suddenly shaking as he broke out in a cold sweat.
Suddenly the girl started to scream. The sound jerked Mark back to reality, the here, the now. He turned. She was staring at him with wild, tearstained eyes, obviously in a state of total shock.
"Shut up," he said sharply but not unkindly.
"He was a
a vampire!" she said. She blinked in disbelief at her own words.
"You killed him!" she gasped. "But
he was real." She shook her head. "That's
"I'm afraid not."
She swayed, still reeling, shaking as if she were suffering from a severe chill.
"Hehe really was a vampire?"
Mark could hear sirens approaching. Someone must have heard her scream. "Yes, he was." But not the one I was looking for, he added silently.
believe this," she said.
"We need to get out of here. The police are coming."
"Shouldn't we stay and report
He arched a brow at her. "You're going to report what happened here?" he asked.
She stared at him, still shaking. "Yes, but
no, it isn't real, can't be real, but
"It is real." He was trying very hard to be patient, but time was running out. He sighed. "They won't believe you, though. We have to get out of here."
Her jaw worked hard as she tried to form words. At last, still shivering, she said, "Get me over the wall, please?"
"Of course. Head that way."
He could move like the wind himselfcollege footballbut she was still so stunned that he felt as if he were dragging dead weight. He had to urge her to help herself as he pushed her up the wall, then jumped to safety behind her and brought her back down on the sidewalk.
Back on solid pavement, she stared at him, shaking her head. "He was really a vampire?"
"No," she argued, then, "Yes," she said. She was going to need some major therapy, he thought. "You
you saved my life. IIoh, God, I owe you
"You and I both have to get out of here. They'll think we're junkies or thieves or something," he said flatly.
I need to
to thank you somehow." Her eyes were wide, frightened; she wasn't being sexual, just grateful and unsure what to do about it.
She straightened her spine, still unable to believe what had happened, but trying for proper dignity.
"My life. You saved my life. I owe you something."
The patrol cars were nearly at the gates.
"You want to do something for me?" he demanded. "Be careful. Don't go off into cemeteries with assholes you meet in a bar, okay?" He grabbed her hand. "Let's go."
He ran, pulling her along after him, and stayed with her down Canal Street and all the way to Harrah's.
"I don't even know your name," she told him.
"And you shouldn't," he said gently. "Go in there. Call a friend. Go home."
He turned and left her, suddenly exhausted, and more disappointed than he cared to admit.
He'd thought he'd been chasing
But he hadn't been. It was that simple.
He swore softly.
Damn, but there were a hell of a lot of foul beasts preying upon the world.
It occurred to him as he walked wearily back to his hotel that man himself could be considered one of themeven before the taint of pure evil touched upon him.
He stopped and looked at the roiling sky. He'd killed a murdering bloodsucker tonight. And it was all just beginning.
"I'm coming to get you. You're going to be mine, in a world of blood and death and darkness," Deanna Marin whispered darkly.
"Oh, for the love of God, cut it out," Lauren Crow pleaded.
"Seriously. Perhaps we'll open a door to another world, and demons will spring out and bring darkness and evil into this world," Heidi Weiss said, laughing, unable to maintain a low, threatening tone with the same success Deanna had managed.
Both Deanna and Heidi were staring across the outdoor table at Lauren with ridiculous grins on their faces. Of course, they were both holding drinks obtained from one of the bars here in Jackson Square, though she couldn't remember which one. Deanna's glass was in the shape of some kind of nuclear-material container and Heidi's looked like a naked man, buns, pecs and all. Perhaps due to a combination of alcohol and the atmosphere of New Orleans itself, they were suddenly eager to visit one of the numerous fortune-tellers who worked the area around Jackson Square with their tarot cards and crystal balls at the ready.
Lauren was delighted to be thereNew Orleans was one of her favorite places in the world. Few locations offered such an artistic setting, with not just the visual stimuli but with the history of the area and liveliness of people filling the very air, as New Orleans did.
Maybe it was due to the one cosmo she'd imbibed, but instead of feeling light and giddy, she felt as if a strange sense of dread and darkness had settled over her.
"Lauren, what on earth is the matter with you?" Heidi demanded. "It's just for fun."
Lauren just didn't like the idea. She didn't know whyshe wasn't particularly superstitiousbut she had never wanted to have her cards read, let someone see her future in her palm, or receive any other kind of astral or otherworldly advice. Time, in her opinion, brought enough hardship without having to worry ahead of time about the bad things that could happen.
But she hated to be a wet blanket when they were here in New Orleans for a much anticipated prebridal shower for Heidi. Since they worked together at the graphic design company they had created after college, it had taken a lot of planning to get all their projects completed so they were free to take off together.
It was Heidi's party, and Lauren had promised herself that she was going to make sure everything went exactly the way Heidi wanted it to. But this desire to play with the occult was something new, and it was making her very uncomfortable.
"You said you would do anything at all this weekend to make me happy. Remember, you're my bridesmaid, so you're supposed to be my slave," Heidi teased.
"Why are you so bugged about it?" Deanna asked.
Lauren didn't know why, and she knew it was silly, but she really didn't want to look into the future.
"You can pick whomever we go to. How's that?" Heidi asked.
"Guys, I just think"
"You need to do this just so you won't be frightened of a few dramatic effects and some spooky patter," Deanna said.
"I'm not afraid," Lauren protested quickly, but even as she spoke, she realized that in fact that was exactly it. She was afraid.
"Really, think about it," Deanna said. "Most of the psychics here are just college kids, trying to make a few bucks. Think of all the times we came here to draw, and how badly we needed the money people paid us for our sketches."
"I think you're forgetting the important point here. I told you. You're supposed to be my slave, remember?" Heidi said.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Lauren muttered. "All right. In that case, I think we should see some kind of voodoo queen. This is New Orleans, after all."
"And do you know an authentic voodoo queen?" Heidi asked, grinning.
Lauren had to smile; she couldn't help finding a certain amusement in the question. Heidi Weiss had powder-blue eyes, platinum hair and a smile a mile wild, the kind that coerced you into a good humor whether you wanted to feel cheerful or not. That grin was a little lopsided now, but just a little. They hadn't been drinking to the point of saturation, only enough not to feel any pain.
"We can walk around, look them all over," she suggested.