A lamp beside the sofa clicked on, as did a hum from outside. Before she could position herself to jump past him through the front door, he slipped inside, carrying more wood in one arm and a shotgun in the other.
He shrugged at her questioning stare. “It’s loaded to bring down as many of them as I can, just in case. They’re weaker, if they came looking for your chocolates. Can’t stop them, not yet, but give it time, and I can.”
“I don’t think so.”
Stacking the wood in the fireplace, Barrett remained silent. Working methodically, he pretended he hadn’t heard her.
“Look, I get it. You know they want me to cook up the chocolates. Let me do it. Lure them into a trap. Use me for bait.” The idea came to her as she was speaking.
“No.” He didn’t turn around as he struck a match. “They’ll take you before I can stop them.”
“What’s the one way you can be sure they’ll all die?” Grandpere never said a word about killing them, only that she had a duty to provide their protective chocolates.
That got his attention. Turning to her, he seemed to be weighing his answer.
“You may as well tell me. I’m the only person in this room who knows what you do.” Sitting on the sofa, she tucked her legs under her and drew one of the blankets over her lap. It hid the bloodstain on the knees of her jeans.
Rising, he left the fire alone to kneel before her and take her hands in his. “Give me the secret ingredient. Let me make the chocolates. I’ll get them when they come to your kitchen.”
“How? How will you kill them?”
Looking into the growing flames in the fireplace, he shook his head. “Fire. Fire’s the only way to make sure, when they’re vulnerable. It’ll mean burning down your business, but . . . .”
“What about the other shops around mine?”
“I’ll make sure the fire department is nearby. Several fire trucks.”
“How will you get out? Alive, I mean.” She couldn’t imagine the violence it would take to start a fire of such magnitude it would destroy the creatures who’d scared her grandpere for his entire life. He had to be planning on a bomb.
“I take my chances. That’s what I do. Tell me how they know the blood chocolates are ready. I’ll make them.”
She thought of her grandpere’s arms, scissored with scars. His legs. His torso. He’d cooked the chocolates too long.
“You don’t have the one crucial ingredient.”
“Tell me what it is, and I’ll make sure it’s never manufactured again.”
Her smile didn’t reassure herself or him.
“It’s my blood. My family line carries the immunity they crave. So you’ll have to kill me to end the blood chocolates. But I think you already knew that.”
* * * * *
Barrett stared at her as if memorizing her face. “It was the only answer. We didn’t know for sure it was the family line, since there’re other vamps around the world who seem to have immunities we can’t crack.”
“What took you so long? Why are you just getting to Wrightsville?”
He looked away. “We didn’t know about your grandfather or your family, not until recently when a flurry of killings that started out in the serial murders section got transferred to me. They were all vamp murders, disguised to look like serial killings. This clan’s clever. Until today and your friend.”
“If you knew they were in Wrightsville, why didn’t you try to stop them?” She wanted to be able to blame someone, anyone for Allis’s death.
“I’m not clairvoyant, if that’s what you’re implying. I was following a hunch. Wrightsville hasn’t had a vamp killing in hundreds of years.”
“Until me, my family has always done its duty.” Why hadn’t she believed her grandpere’s tales? “I must do mine now. It’s the only way.”
“Dammit.” Sitting beside her, Barrett lifted the afghan covering her feet and began rubbing the sole of her feet with slow, practiced circles. “He had no right to keep you in the dark.”
“Who, grandpere?” She felt herself relaxing under his ministrations despite her fervent hopes she’d grow to hate this man who seemed to know a hell of a lot more than she did about her own family.
“No, my boss. My late boss. He should have taken you in when it was clear there’d been a shift in the dynamics. It’s a clear indicator of, um, unrest. That’s a good enough word. Didn’t take me twenty-four hours to find you, he should have done it when your grandfather died.”
“Why would he? And who is he, exactly?”
Barrett sighed, shutting his eyes. “Head of Paranormal Activities at the FBI. It’s coordinated with the military, and we share offices and intel. We’ve systemically run a boatload of weird shit to ground and eliminated it in the bigger, urban areas, where we thought they hunted exclusively. Then Will, head of my division, got himself killed. Lunch for the beasties. Got tired of riding the desk and his laptop, wanted a little excitement to wake him up. He didn’t wake up, not after the master vamp in a tiny fish camp town in South Carolina finished him off.”
He sounded more bitter than angry, Langie decided.
“Who’s in charge now?”
“Three guesses.” He lifted one eyebrow and nodded in the affirmative.
“Can you stop them?” She was afraid to hear his answer.
“Yes. If you’ll let me do what I do, and stay out of your kitchen. Let me see your arms.”
She knew why he asked. She’d seen her grandpere’s arms just that once, and wondered as a child why he was ribboned with scars. Rolling back the sleeves of her sweater, she brandished her clear skin.
“They can smell your blood. It’s like the most expensive perfume. There’s a way to duplicate the scent. At least, that’s what my techies tell me. We fool them into thinking they’re getting their magic candy.” His smile lacked humor.
“And if they aren’t fooled? Then what?” She had a vague idea that Allis would be just the start of a campaign to get her to do their bidding. Naw, nothing vague about it.
“We punt.” Taking his jacket off, he slung it over a chair and bent to strike a match to the kindling in the stone-faced fireplace.
“That’s about the extent of it.” A wry smile, and his face transformed. “You in?”
“Do I have any choice?”
“Sure. Get out of Dodge. Drive until the wheels fall off. Don’t use your real name, get a new identity, and get blood transfusions every chance you get. Don’t donate blood. Pray they don’t find you.”
Swallowing hard, Langie tried to envision life somewhere else. “What, no plastic surgery?”
Barrett thought a minute. “Might not be a bad idea. Change your looks, wear tons of strong perfume.”
“I was kidding.” She couldn’t run. No way. If she helped him, maybe they’d win. Allis’s death surrounded her like a blanket smothering her face. “Those bastards have to pay for what they did. Not just to Allis, but to my grandfather. To my family.”
A black hue swept through his eyes. “Let’s get started, then. I have my kit in the car, I’ll be back.”
He hurried through the door to the outside as if afraid she’d try to slip out with him, slamming it shut behind him so quickly he almost caught his shirt tail.
Kit? What the heck what he have in mind? What did she know about him, anyway? He hadn’t shown her any ID, she hadn’t asked for it, to be honest, but still. . . . For all she knew, he was one of them. Her stomach roiled. He’d recognized her by the scent of her blood in the bite mark she’d made on her hand.
God, how stupid could she be? If he was one of them, though, he’d have killed her by now. Or at the very least, forced her to make some blood chocolates. Only she knew the process took a long time – days and days of preparation, then they had to age sufficiently for their efficacy to kick in.
Shutting the door and locking it behind him once again, Barrett dropped a large metal briefcase on the sofa beside her. “Didn’t see anything out there. We may be safe, but I’m not going to count on it.”
Swallowing hard, Langie edged towards the fireplace and its brass poker. “So why’d you light the fire? I thought you didn’t want any signs we’re here.”
“It’s only a couple of hours until dawn. They’ll have to find their nests, go to ground. We have today to figure this out, then it’s war. I know how they operate.” Bent over the box, he began setting up a laptop and a case of syringes on the coffee table. “Got an internet card, I can analyze your blood with this contraption here and send the info to Washington. It shouldn’t take long for us to have an answer, they’ve been working on one for the others.”
“You mean the other humans forced to give the vamps what they want?”
He nodded. “It’s mutation of some sort that’s hardwired into your DNA. Every new generation gets ferreted out by the bloodsuckers. Allis bought you some time. Not much, but a little.” He fiddled with the laptop and brought up a screen. “Now we’re cookin’, no pun intended. I’m connected with the lab in Texas.”
Despite the nice fire crackling away, Langie shivered.
He didn’t raise his eyes from the computer’s screen. His dark hair, longish at the nape of his neck, curled over the collar of his black shirt. Dark clothes, dark man, she thought. Why was he hiding in this cabin if he was one of the good guys? Where was his white stallion? Why hadn’t he spirited her away to the castle with FBI agents guarding the moat to keep her safe?
“I need a sample. You’re the one with the magic potion.” He shrugged. “It won’t hurt. At least, not much.” Flicking the end of a syringe, he gestured for her to give him her arm.
“What’re you going to do with it? And why do you have a zillion more of those long needles in there?” She gestured at the box.
“Run it thru this scanner on this,” he held up a disk.
Silence surrounded them as she eyed the needle, until a soft cry sent her heart thumping peanut butter. “Do you hear that?” she asked.
“No, what?” Cocking his head, he glanced at the door. “What did you hear?”
“I’m not sure. The wind on the roof? We’re surrounded by pines. Could be needles falling.”
Rising, she pulled the afghan around her shoulders and walked to the door, pressing her ear to the wood. Her hearing, always acute, sharpened even more. “There it goes again.”
This time she heard it more clearly. “A voice. I hear someone calling my name. Come here, listen!”
“Impossible. You’re hallucinating.”
“Langie.” A woman’s voice penetrated the logs. “Langie, open up, I need you.”
“God! Did you hear that? It’s Allis! Open the door!” Fumbling with the locks, Langie tried to get them to work, but they resisted her tugging and jerking. “What’s wrong with them, I can’t get them to open?”
“That’s because I used magic.” Laughing, Barrett rocked back on his heels and watched Langie gape at him. “Kidding, what did you think?”
“I think I want you to open this door. There’s someone out there calling me. My God, it is Allis.”
“Can’t be. Come here, let me get the sample.” He gestured with his hand for her to turn around, and she felt a tug in her muscles so hard she almost fell to the floor. If she’d been made of steel bones and metal muscles, the magnet pulling her outside couldn’t have exerted a stronger pull.
Fear gave her the courage to grab the door handle and hang on. “Stop it,” she cried. “Open the door for Allis!”
Rushing to her side, Barrett locked her in his arms. “They’ll take you before you can blink.”
She’d never felt worse in her life. If she didn’t find Allis, she’d die.
“I have to go! Can’t you feel it? It’s going to rip me apart. My God, help me!” She could feel her organs straining at her muscles, her skin stretching taut as a drum.
“Water, it’s the only way. Let go, Langie, hang onto me.”
The power pulling her would have smashed her through the wood logs if Barrett hadn’t grabbed her up in his arms and run with her into a back room. Locking the door behind them while he held her, he dropped her in an old-fashioned porcelain tub and cranked the handles. Cold water poured over her feet as Barrett forced her body to stay in the tub. The pain inside her crescendoed until she thought she’d explode with it. The water rose slowly, soaking her legs, then her hips, and finally, up to her chest, making breathing easier.
As the cold water poured over the edge of the tub, soaking Barrett as well, he turned off the taps.
“Now take a deep breath and submerge yourself. Stay under the water as long as you can before you take your next breath. The water will block their calling you.”
The water seeped away the pain slowly. She’d kill herself before she would take any more of this agony. Gulping in a big chunk of air, she slid her head under the water again and again. Barrett’s arms never left her shoulder and stomach, forcing her deeper.
Only as the top of her head disappeared into the cold water did the pain ease up. She could feel the fire inside her slowly dying. Was this how it felt when you passed away, she wondered? Was it from the fire into the ice?
* * * * *
“We’ve got to get away from here. They’re calling to your blood.”
“As if I didn’t know.” Pale with pain, Langie kept her hands snapped tight against her ears. “Now I know how the sirens got the upper hand.”
“Can you stand it long enough to get in the Jeep? I’ll drive like a bat out of hell away from here.” He was soaked to the skin as well and shivering almost as violently as she.
“If you can’t get me free, just kill me.” She meant every word. “And don’t let the bastards find me before the bugs do.”
“Charming image, but I get the point. Okay, let’s get you out of here.” Locking his arms under hers, he helped her sit up in the full tub. After she stood, sluicing water, he lifted her into his arms and hurried to the front door.
Trembling against him, Langie concentrated on breathing. If she could focus on something else, maybe the pain would ease up a sec. So she chose the hair at the bottom of his neck, where it veeed into his chest. Counting one, two, three, four. Over and over again as she stared at each and every hair.
She nodded. “I’m freezing.”
“It’s going to get colder.”
The wind struck her like icy needles through her wet clothing as he opened the door. She wondered how he managed the locks while holding her, but she was too cold to care. She blamed her frozen senses for dulling the smell thrown in her face as he hesitated on the cabin’s threshold. When it hit her, she almost retched.
“What’s that God-awful stink?”
Silent, he pivoted three hundred and sixty degrees, as if checking every corner of the surrounding forest for enemies. "Them."
"Let’s get out of here,” she mumbled through stiff lips.
Wrenching open the Jeep’s door, he tossed her inside. “Put on your seatbelt. It’s going to get rough.”
Fumbling with fingers made clumsy with the sub-zero temperature, she couldn’t help staring around the Jeep, searching the shadows for any signs of whatever had found the cabin. “Where is it? The one that found us?”
“Went for reinforcement,s is my bet.” Gunning the engine, Barrett popped the clutch. “Hang on.”
Fishtailing, the Jeep sprang from its parking spot like a cat shocked with a cattle prod. Gray and black shadows rippled across the windshield so quickly they made Langie feel dizzy. She didn’t know how he could drive, the shadows in front of them were as dark as the tinted glass in a mobster’s limo.
Shifting gears, Barrett kept his foot solidly on the gas. A shaky wobble, then Jeep righted itself.
“Pothole, don’t worry,” he reassured her. “I think we’ve outrun them.”
“I don’t think so.”
He didn’t know what she knew. That the vamps could bring her to them if she wouldn’t come voluntarily. She should have told him escape was impossible, but she’d hoped her grandfather had made a mistake. The vamps always came to him, he’d said, but tradition promised she could be summoned.
Whomp. The Jeep shimmied as if it had been whacked with a giant sledgehammer.
When she’d tried to escape from the cabin, they must have used their power to call her. Another whomp, and the Jeep slowed down. She felt the power jerking her like a marionette’s strings.
Spinning, the Jeep did a one-eighty, facing the direction they’d come, the engine whining as Barrett kept his foot on the gas and they went nowhere.
“What the hell?” He jerked the clutch and tried to force the Jeep to move.
“That’s what this is. Hell. Stay out of the way. If I can appease them, maybe they’ll leave you alone.” Unclicking the belt, she slid from the front seat before he could stop her.
The black shadows swarmed her like locusts on green corn. She thought of the sunny beach, the blue blue of the sky, the sound of the front door bell at the chocolate shop. But the images wouldn't stay in her head.
Freezing air, colder than the bottom of a winter lake, held her in its clawed grasp. Was this death, she wondered, or a different version of hell. In the long run, it didn't matter.
She was lost. No one would find her, no one living, that is, when the vampires were finished with her. The truth was as bitter as myrrh in her mouth.
She forced one word out, a whisper, before she let herself be taken. "Barrett."
He never heard her.