After hanging up on his call, Thomas Cullison returned to the guest room and stood in the corner of the room while everyone else either sat or laid down. He didn’t mind, though: Being undead kept him from really being tired, and his vantage point let him easily watch the young witches he had been instructed to keep an eye on. It was a task that he was somewhat conflicted about. Although it was true that he was the youngest vampire in the city, he had still been in his fifties when he was first turned. As such, the fact that they were all young, energetic, fairly attractive co-eds was more distracting than it should have been.
On the other hand: all of Thomas’ donors were around seventeen to thirty years old — they were friends and proteges he had cultivated for that specific purpose, and since he had been warned of the conflicts that could arise if his donors were also his lovers they were all male. So he felt like he was in his early twenties thanks to the essence he was currently living on. Which made enjoying the eye candy around him feel perfectly natural — in fact, he wasn’t sure he could actually help that at the moment. Maybe he should look into finding some donors closer to his own age and less hopped-up on hormones and youth? Because despite the fact that he was only twenty-eight in undead-years he still looked like he was fifty-three, and had counted eighty-one birthdays, all told.
Thomas leaned his head back so he could stare at the ceiling. I’ve turned into that creepy old man, haven’t I? He wasn’t exactly certain when that had happened, but he was reasonably confident that it had. Of course, it didn’t help that he’d always been painfully awkward around women even when he had been the appropriate physical, emotional, and mental ages — all at the same time — to not automatically be a creep. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t a lot for him to do other than stand in his corner and stew in his self-evident creepiness.
I wonder how old Abigail is, he silently mused. That she was powerful was self-evident. Where that put her age at was up for debate, however, especially if her first blood had been a werewolf’s. That threw all of Thomas’ guesses out the window, since he just didn’t know enough about were-blooded vampires to guess how rapidly her abilities would mature, or what level they would start out at… And he had no idea what her mortal age had been.Thomas drummed his fingers against the outside of his pocket, tapping impatiently on his phone case. He’d left more than one message for his sire, hoping to get some answers about the Council of Twelve or how a were-blooded vamp could be expected to develop her powers. He’d even made sure to specify the most recent message was urgent, which could sometimes be dangerous when dealing with someone as old as the senior Cullison, as old vampires often seemed to prioritize things differently. They just operated on a different time scale than those that were still used to being mortal.
But it was urgent. At this rate, for all that he’d been told he wasn’t to get overtly involved in the infighting among the other scions on this trip, Thomas wasn’t entirely certain he’d be able to follow his sire’s instructions.
Or rather, Thomas wasn’t worried about however things might fall out with his fellow scions. But he was very worried about inadvertently getting involved in the political infighting of Directors, where the fallout had the potential to be devastating to his entire line — even if he had tried to put on a cavalier attitude while talking with Abigail. I hope he calls back soon, dammit. We won’t be able to speak freely if Director Lewellan gets back first.
“Hellooooo..? Mr. Vampire?”
Thomas pulled himself out of his thoughts with a start. He’d managed to distract himself with his worries thoroughly enough that he hadn’t realized at first that one of the witches was actually addressing him and not one of her companions. “Yes?” Thomas said. “Sorry. I usually respond more promptly to ‘Thomas.’ Or ‘Mr. Cullison,’ if you prefer. And you would be Jessica.”
Thomas had always been good with names, and he didn’t have a problem remembering those of any of the four witches currently in the guest bedroom with him. He’d been introduced, briefly, when they’d arrived. Well, except for to Emma, of course, since she was the unconscious one. Terry and Anna were the two sitting on the love seat. Terry, a blonde with the physique of a cheerleader, was meditating. Anna — who could’ve been her twin, if not for the distinct difference in facial structure — was reading one of the novels from a nearby shelf. And Jessica was the somewhat larger — not unhealthily so, but more classically pretty than athletically hot — brunette sitting on the edge of the bed.
Linda, the leader of their coven, had departed a few hours ago. Supposedly to try to contact more of her witches, since many of them had been off campus when the current crisis arose. Given the conversation he had been privy to between Linda and Abigail, however, Thomas was willing to lay even odds that she was up to something else, instead.
Jessica smiled at him, which made Thomas uncomfortable and slightly more aware of the fact that he was a dead thing standing in the corner of a room full of attractive young witches. Had this been a horror movie, Thomas was confident that the scene would not have ended well for anyone involved. “Mr. Cullison, then,” Jessica said. “So, how long have you been a vampire?”
Thomas resisted the urge to blink in confusion. Was she just trying to make small talk? “Twenty-eight years,” Thomas answered. “I’m afraid I’m the youngster of those in town currently.”
“Oh,” Jessica replied. “Um. Were you a donor before…?”
“Before I died?” Thomas asked. Jessica flushed, which Thomas took to mean he’d guessed right and she was embarrassed about asking such a personal question. That was only fair, though: he was embarrassed about being asked it. “No,” he said anyway. “I was an investigative journalist. Not a very good one, it seems, since until I was diagnosed with cancer I didn’t know any more about the supernatural side of things than any other mundane.” Diagnosed with it after having been misdiagnosed for years, Thomas didn’t mention. The thought was a bitter one and he knew it made his voice sharper regardless of his intention to keep it to himself — but by the time he’d seen another doctor, it had been in stage four and inoperable. Chemo might have extended his life, but the odds had been against it. “However, as it turns out, my family belongs to a purely mortal branch of the Cullison line that the progenitors of the supernatural line kept an eye on. When the direness of my situation became evident, they stepped in.”
Sometimes, in his darker moments, Thomas wondered if the family’s accounting of it was the real truth — or if his original doctor, and perhaps others like him, had been given lists of people from certain families and quiet instructions to ‘overlook’ life-threatening diseases in those people until they became candidates for being turned. The Center was very clear that its vampires were not to risk the lives of mortals who weren’t on their deathbeds, after all, but there was a long-standing tradition of strength in numbers. The larger families were always the most influential. It was a thought he tried not to follow. ‘Investigative Paranoia,’ he called it: the urge to hunt for a story because it would make a good story, rather than because there was any call to believe it was true.
Jessica stared at Thomas with wide eyes that made him feel slightly worse about it, though the schadenfreude balanced that out nicely. Here she was trying to make idle conversation with the creepy fellow in the corner, and he had to go and drop things like ‘death’ and ‘cancer’ on her. He forced himself to breathe out and smile. “Why?” he asked.
“Um.” Jessica said. But she soldiered on admirably. “Well, Emma was a donor. She chose to be. Dropped out of school, even. And now she’s like this. And… I… I was hoping you could explain what it was like; why someone would let a vampire do this to them.” She blurted out the last words in a rush, then took a deep breath. Although she was clearly nervous that her question was stepping over a line, she kept her chin up and didn’t look away.
Thomas nodded, but kept his own jumbled emotions from showing. That was a skill he’d perfected over the last few years of his mortal life, as the diagnoses kept becoming more and more grim. Still, keeping them from showing didn’t mean keeping them from being felt. When he answered, Thomas was a little more antagonistic than he was usually comfortable with. “If you really want to know what it is like,” he said around a hint of fang, “why don’t you just offer some blood to a vampire and find out?”
Jessica recoiled and Thomas scoffed. “I don’t mean to imply myself,” he added. “I wouldn’t drink from you even if you did ask. My donors are all men. I’m straight, and it keeps things less complicated that way.”
“What?” Terry asked in surprise. “How is that supposed to work?”
Thomas’ eyes skewed over to the love seat, where he saw that he now had the attention of three of the room’s four female occupants. Feeling even more awkward but confident in his ability to cover it up, he turned his glance back to Jessica and did his best to pretend that he was only actually talking with one of them. “There is a sort of infatuation that develops between a donor and vampire, when blood is first exchanged. For a new donor, that can be reinforced by multiple feedings. Usually it doesn’t last much more than a year, though — less if the donor has been fed on before. The soul builds up a resistance, I suppose.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, if that is combined with the possibility of attraction between the two it can complicate things quickly. If nothing else, it muddies the question of consent. While some swear that it leads to an intense and passionate relationship, if properly managed, the other extreme is darker than I care to court.”
Actually, now that he was thinking about it, he probably could safely drink from Jessica if she asked — his first blood had been a regular mortal’s, and she was a witch, so her aura should have the depth necessary to feed his curse without developing an abiding obsession in the process. Thomas clicked his mouth shut on that thought. Not because he wanted to mislead Jessica, or because he wanted to leave her with incomplete or inaccurate information. No, Thomas shut himself up so he wouldn’t contradict himself and, in the process, imply that he would be game for something as inappropriate as experimenting with feeding on and seducing someone who couldn’t be much more than a fourth his age.
Fortunately, the girls distracted each other rather than relying on him to carry the conversation.
“That explains it,” Anna observed.
Jessica looked over at her. “Explains what?” she asked. “You think Emma was infatuated with Mr. Salvatore?”
Anna looked uncomfortable, but Terry just nodded. “Yeah. Emma’s girlfriend flipped out when Emma left her for Mr. Salvatore,” Terry said. “And it was really weird, too, because Emma had always been really dedicated to Caroline before that. I mean, kinda flirty and stuff with other people, too, but she followed Carol around like a puppy.”
Anna nodded. “They had an open relationship, sort of,” Anna explained with a sidelong glance at Emma. “I mean… technically? They were pretty happy with each other, though, and never seemed to see anyone else steadily. I wouldn’t have guessed that Emma was going to end it that night.”
Jessica scowled. For a moment, no one said anything. Then Terry let out a low whistle.
“What?” Jessica asked.
“Oh,” Terry replied. “I was just thinking: Caroline is going to wig the crap out when she finds out Emma’s let another vampire get its hooks into her.”
“Really?” Anna asked. “I mean, yeah, I can see that, given their history, but… Isn’t Carol with that frosh now?”
Jessica looked back and forth between the other two girls, who proceeded to debate just how attached Caroline may or may not be to her ex. Thomas shook his head imperceptibly and resumed staring at the ceiling. Too young for me by decades, he concluded. Decent eye candy, but still. Now, if only his sire would call back, maybe he could get a few more clues and make some more headway in figuring out what exactly Director Lewellan was up to.
With an impatient sigh, Thomas looked down and pulled out his phone. He’d never really gotten used to the way the new ones just stored everyone’s numbers, so he pulled up the dial pad and started tapping out the senior Cullison’s number.
Thomas made it halfway through the digits when he was interrupted by an explosion, deep in the house, that shook the entire building.