Hans reacted first. He bolted past me and across the basement while my fight or flight instincts were still trying to turn on. Emma had screamed. She’d sounded terrified.
In that abrupt instant all the day’s attempts at de-stressing were undone. It was last night again, as far as my brain was concerned. Only this time whatever monster was standing in for Mr. Salvatore was after Emma.
I slid off the folding table and turned around. Time stopped. Hans may have reacted faster than I did, but I was past him and at the top of the stairs before time started again.
I flung open the door at the top of the stairs. Time ticked for just a second or two. I heard a masculine voice I didn’t recognize snarling at Emma, but the words were lost as time froze again. I bolted to the end of the hall and turned into the living room.
The front door was open. A man I didn’t know was inside. He had caught Emma by the wrist. She was frozen in the act of scrambling backward; pulling away from him. He was a small man – shorter than average; slender. His hair was short and black. His eyes were a cold grey. His face was snarled – he was yelling at Emma.
He looked like Mr. Salvatore. He was even wearing a suit.
I was so stunned that I lost my grip on whatever vampiric power ebbed the flow of time. They started moving again.
“…doing?!” the man snapped.
Emma inhaled to scream again, and the man let her go. “Oh, shut up,” he spat. “I’m doing you a favor here.”
Emma overbalanced and fell on her butt. She scrambled backward, away from Mr. Salvatore’s semi-doppelganger. He stepped forward, looming as threateningly as a man of his stature could.
He shouldn’t have done that.
I didn’t even register the passage of time. One second I was looking into the room from the hallway, and the next I was in between the stranger and Emma, and the crack of my fist clobbering his face was echoing around us.
It was like punching a wooden post. The man grunted and stumbled back a step. I felt like every bone in my hand was broken. I used the rush of adrenaline to ignore it. “Leave her alone!” I shouted.
The man stared at me. “Do you know who that is?” he asked derisively. “She’s one of Salvatore’s thralls.”
I bared my fangs. Who the fuck was this guy? “She’s my girlfriend,” I growled.
He took a half step back – into the sunlight spilling through the open door. “Who are you?” He asked in surprise. Then he snorted. “Never mind. You’re in over your head, baby vamp. And she’s using you.” This last was said with a jerk of his head toward Emma, who had scrambled to her feet behind me.
“Don’t you dare touch her,” I snarled. “Or I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” The stranger asked. He bared his teeth back at me. They were all pointed, like they’d been filed down. What was this guy? He wasn’t Mr. Salvatore. The resemblance was there, but he didn’t have the accent. He definitely had the attitude, though. “I’m not some mortal you can intimidate. Frankly, you punch like a girl. So shut up, sit down, and let me get this sorted out.”
“John!” Hans called from somewhere behind me. “Calm down!”
“Well, you scream like a eunuch,” I spat back at John. I gave him a quarter second to figure out what I meant – and to gather myself. Then I made time hiccup, and I slammed my knee into his groin as hard as I could.
I am not a fighter by nature. I am a scared, innocent rabbit. I’ve always known that if it came down to a confrontation I would either run, hide, or stand paralyzed by fear – and end up torn to pieces whatever I did. I could only assume that the part of me that takes over when I’m panicking in conversations was calling the shots now – and that part of me had apparently been hanging out with Fumiko long enough to pick up some dirty tricks.
The guy gasped in strangled agony. His hands dropped defensively.
I slammed my heel into the top of his foot. My hand hurt too much to punch him again and my leg felt like it was burning where the sun had scorched it. I spun – vampire quick – and grabbed the nearest weapon I could find.
It happened to be the table in the front corner of the room.
I didn’t even think about how heavy it had to be. I just grabbed it by the edge and swung. The chairs went clattering as the table knocked them over. Then I heaved the whole thing up – one handed! – and brought it down on John’s head.
The force drove him to his knees. He caught himself with one hand. I hit him with the table again. And again. No way in hell was I going to give him a chance to jump us! I slammed the table over his back a third time, and then something yanked me backward.
I threw the table at John and struggled with my captor. It was Hans. He lifted me off my feet and pulled me away from John.
“Calm down, Abigail,” Hans tried to persuade me. I kicked and flailed anyway.
“He was going to hurt Emma!” I screamed.
“Emma’s safe,” Hans tried to assure me. “John wouldn’t hurt her. John,” he called out past me when I refused to be calmed, “back off. Now.”
John backed up until he was actually out the front door. He raised his hands in a feeble imitation of surrender.
Hans managed to pull me back another step or two. I stopped struggling so he would put me down. He did, but he didn’t let go of my waist.
“Alright,” Hans said. “Let’s start this over, shall we? Abigail, this is John. He was one of Salvatore’s aides in the war. He’s not going to hurt Emma. John, tell Abigail that you aren’t here to hurt anyone.”
“Hurt her?” John asked in surprise. “I was going to keep her from hurting herself.”
I glared at him. Whatever he thought he was selling, I wasn’t buying it.
“Okay,” said Hans. “Good. Now, John: This is Abigail. She killed Salvatore. After he murdered her. I wouldn’t advise pushing her today.”
John’s expression turned incredulous as he lowered his hands. “You’re kidding me,” John said. “What?”
“Hans,” I said coldly, “let me go so I can check on Emma.”
Hans let me go and stepped forward to put himself between John and I. I didn’t care – I really did want to make sure Emma was okay.
“It was bad,” I could hear Hans tell John. “Salvatore had started starving himself to cut out his emotions. Naturally, his hunger got the better of him.”
I ignored the rest of Hans’ recounting of last night and turned to Emma. She was shrunk in on herself with fright and staring at John with her hands curled into fists. I caught her by her wrists and made her look at me. “Are you okay?” I asked worriedly.
“I thought he was Salvatore,” Emma whispered. “I saw him and I just screamed, and I tried to run away but he grabbed me.
“He’s not Mr. Salvatore,” I tried to reassure her. “You’re safe. He didn’t hurt you, did he?” I checked the wrist John had grabbed for bruises, but I didn’t see any. Emma shook her head.
“I’m okay,” she said. “He just scared me.” Her heart was still pounding like a rabbit’s – I could hear its beat as she tried to pull herself together.
“Alright,” I said. I held onto Emma’s hand and turned to face John again. I kept Emma behind me. “So what are you and what are you doing here and what did you mean you were trying to keep Emma from hurting herself?” I demanded.
John looked around Hans to face me. “I’m a ghoul,” he said with a toothy grin. This time his teeth looked normal. “In fact, I’m Salvatore’s ghoul. He’s my father. I came here as soon as I felt him die – I’ve been on the road all day.”
I scowled at John. So far his explanation wasn’t doing it for me – or even making sense. If Mr. Salvatore had turned him into an undead, shouldn’t he be a vampire? Of course, given the resemblance, maybe he meant he was literally related to Mr. Salvatore. I tried to think of anything manga had told me about ghouls. Weren’t they just hungrier, slightly smarter zombies?
“As for her,” John nodded toward Emma, “You should know that she was one of Salvatore’s thralls. So naturally when I saw her here I was concerned. I’ve seen a thrall crawl into his mistress’ casket and slit his wrists to bring her back. I had to make sure I was interrupting her if she was on her way to do the same.”
I hesitated. That rang true, if only because of how Emma’s hand had gone cold and clammy in mine, and I could feel a tremble in her arm.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Emma said. I squeezed her hand to let her know I believed her.
I was pretty sure that she wouldn’t kill herself to bring back Mr. Salvatore. If only because now I realized that she had considered it already, and decided not to.
John shrugged unapologetically. “I couldn’t know that and I still don’t believe it. But if you can hold out, then more power to you.” He turned to Hans. “I’m going to get a hotel room and stay in town for a few days. When the directors show up to take Salvatore’s body, let me know. I’d like to be there when he’s interred.”
Hans nodded solemnly. “I’ll keep you informed,” he promised.
“Good,” John said. “And thank you.” He started to turn, then hesitated. After a second he looked back at me. “Abigail?”
I nodded. So he could remember my name: what did he want, a cookie?
“If I’d known about you, this wouldn’t have been how I introduced myself. What I mean is…” John hesitated again. “If you need anything while I’m in town, Hans has my number. Don’t hesitate to call. I know this has to all seem pretty crazy, and I know it’ll get worse before it gets settled, but even among us supernaturals family should stick together.
I stared at John. Then I blinked. What? Even among us supernaturals, family should stick together?
“What?” I asked blankly.
John chuckled. “Dad turned you,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, you’re a Salvatore now, too.” He shrugged like it was no big deal. “I guess it’s just lucky that I always wanted a little sister.”