When I left the funeral home, I was far from my usual self. The bite I’d taken out of Dopplinda had kept me from going over the edge, but I’d torn through my buffer to get in synch with my vampiric ruthlessness, and that tear hadn’t been mended. As such, the very first thing I did was look for Elaine.
Maybe, if I found her quickly enough, there would be some scraps left of her prey for me to tear apart.
I grasped her leyline and swiftly triangulated the direction she was in. Her exposed emotions were a crazy, almost nonsensical rush of things that somehow seemed foreign — ah! She was feeding. I smiled. Good for mom. She must’ve caught the bastard, and was snacking on some of his goons.
Still, I was a little disappointed that the fighting was apparently over. I slung Dopplinda’s casket over my back and, hunched over to keep it from dragging on the ground, I ran in the direction that strengthened my connection through Elaine’s ley line.
Maybe I can still snag some leftovers, I thought. If not… Well, anyone that Elaine fed on would be pumped full of symbiotic vampire healing magic, and in the mood I was in I was willing to settle for repeatedly breaking their faces against a wall. After all, the fuckers had burned down my boyfriend’s house. And I hadn’t even gotten to have a three way in his hot tub yet!
Oh, and it would probably be a good idea to get out of sight before one of those dumb asses down at the gas station got questioned by the police, and they put out an APB for a not-quite-in-the-grave-yet robber who fit my general description and may or may not have been involved in the arson of the funeral home.
I scurried into the cover of the first alley I found. From there I had to hop a fence at the other end, then dart down a street and turn up a second alleyway. Fortunately, no one ‘normal’ seemed to be out and about once I got away from the road Kallaher’s funeral home had been on. From there I just had to jaywalk one more time before I got to the alley that Elaine was feeding in.
Except, when I turned the corner on that alley I saw that Elaine wasn’t standing triumphant over an arsonist vampire and his paramilitary goon squad. Instead, she was being held — clearly against her will — by some guy I had never seen before.
He wasn’t tall — or maybe I just can’t really judge that now that I’ve met Hans. He did have a couple of inches on Elaine, anyway. His arms were wrapped around her in a bear hug, pinning her arms at her sides. He’d lifted off the ground to deny her any leverage, but her hands were curled into fists as though her arms had been straining against his grip. The shins of his jeans were dark with blood where she’d kicked him hard enough to splinter bone — though her feet were still, now.
Elaine had even managed to twist around in his grip enough tobite the bastard — which seemed to be where their struggle had stopped. He was probably falling into her thrall, a distant part of me realized — but that part of me didn’t get the rest to listen to it.
In the same instant that I took everything in, I reacted.
Maybe it was just that sealing Dopplinda into a warded casket hadn’t done enough to burn off my rage at all the things she’d told me. Or maybe it was that Elaine was my pseudo-vampire-mom, and Dopplinda had gotten me worked up about and super protective of my real mom, and that was bleeding over to include all mom-figures. Hell, maybe it was just that I was still spoiling to break someone, myself.
In any case, I didn’t have time to realize I had thrown Dopplinda’s casket aside and was throwing myself down the alley at them until after the fact. “Let go of her!” I screamed. The guy jerked his head up to look my way, and then I was on top of them.
I wrenched them apart violently, then stepped past Elaine. With one hand I pulled her protectively behind me while I shoved the guy away from her with the other. His shoulder was shredded by Elaine’s fangs as I pulled the two of them apart, and then my shove hurled him into the alley wall with enough force to splinter bone and brick.
But this wasn’t my first tangle with a monster, and I couldn’t think of any other way to describe someone who grabbed a woman in a dark alley — even if she happened to be a vampire. I wasn’t going to give him a chance to recover! I bolted after him, throwing wild punches that probably would have made Fumiko hide her eyes in embarrassment. Whatever. With my strength, they didn’t have to be good hits to pulp this fucker until the wall behind him was pulverised, too.
So of course, I was utterly unprepared for him to knock my blows aside with almost casual ease. His arms moved faster than I could follow — fast enough that for one shocked, panicked, second I thought he was fucking with time. It was only after I realized that I could still hear Elaine crying: “Abigail, stop!” that I realized I hadn’t been pulled into an accelerated time stream with him. But by then he had grabbed my wrists and twisted me around. I found myself pinned just like Elaine had been, except I was facing away from him and his hands did not let go of my wrists even though my arms were pinned.
I stopped. Not so much because Elaine had shouted at me, as because my brain was shutting down from a sudden overload of: trapped. Man. Alley. Night. Monster. Oh no. Oh fuck no, no no no no no…. It didn’t take a second for my well trained brain to go where it usually does when confronted with these sorts of circumstances, and unlike Elaine I couldn’t even bite the guy. I froze while vampire fury clashed with ingrained panic — but the panic won out because the fury proved unable to break free of the monster’s grip. And there was way too much panic for me to bother listening to the teeny tiny part of me that was confused about why Elaine would have wanted me to not beat her attacker into a pile of fleshy mulch.
“Abigail?” The man holding me asked, and I saw Elaine nod at him. I still strained against his grip, but I couldn’t break it any more than Elaine had. She started walking toward us, calmly, while I thrashed. Somehow it got through to me that Elaine seemed to be unconcerned that this guy — he has to be the vampire she was hunting, I realized — had somehow managed to turn the tables on us. Having a name for him — vampire — let my ruthlessness supplant my panic. I knew how to deal with vampires. I let my struggles cease and started to look at things analytically. Eventually there was going to be an opportunity for me to fuck him up.…
Plus, his voice made some small part of my brain twitch. Of course the psycho arsonist vampire rapist would have an accent. That was just fucking wrong. Or, my involuntary reaction to it was, at least.
I was so focused on that reaction that I was surprised when he abruptly put me down. “Well, if we’re quite done with that, then,” he said, and he gave me a little push toward Elaine. She caught me when I stumbled toward her.
I twisted around. Elaine had an arm around my shoulder, sort of protectively — and sort of preventatively, as though she were afraid I might throw myself at the guy again. Which was legit, since I was a small bundle of crazy wrapped around a cursed ball of psycho. But she needn’t have worried. My curse still cared about self-preservation, after all, and the man’s voice had finally clicked in my scrambling brain beyond: Oooooh, an accent. Yum.
“Director Estevez?” I asked.
The director nodded, and I shrank back against Elaine as my mortal emotions surged, taking precedence over my vampire instincts once more. Her arm tightened, this time entirely in protection. “He isn’t going to hurt you,” Elaine whispered under her breath. I don’t know if he heard her or not, but Estevez couldn’t have missed my reaction.
“Elaine was badly injured when she confronted the vampire you were hunting,” the Director patiently explained to me. “She was going feral, but managed to call me with a report.” His voice hardened slightly. “As promised, I accelerated here personally to deal with the matter.”
“Then… Then you got the guy?” I asked hopefully. “The psycho arsonist vampire ra…?” I abruptly left off the last adjective I’d mentally ascribed to the Director when I’d thought he was the bad guy in question. I don’t think anyone noticed. Director Estevez was already shaking his head.
“Dealing with a feral vampire before she could kill anyone was a more immediate concern,” Estevez said.
I swallowed weakly and didn’t argue. I was probably borderline feral, myself. And I had a bad history of vampire Directors trying to ‘deal with’ me in ways I did not approve of, so I didn’t want to antagonize this one. Still, despite my inherent fears, I couldn’t help glancing back at Elaine. I didn’t know if she was pale because she had just had a close call, or if it was the natural effect of undeath, or if she was still really close to the edge of going feral again, too — but I was still holding our shared leyline and now that I was paying attention to it again I could feel that she was shaken by whatever had happened.
“Now then,” Director Estevez unknowingly echoed my thoughts, “what happened?”
Elaine gave my shoulders one more reassuring squeeze and then let her arm fall. This time she stepped around me, taking the Director’s focus and giving me that much more space from him. I focused on her as she explained, in clear, concise sentences, what had happened to her after we parted ways. How she’d located the van, determined that it contained the vampire who’d attacked me at Hans’ house, been stymied by the wards until she engaged the occupants and then pursued the vampire who fled. And how that had been a ruse, to draw her into a confined space where a pack of ghouls had managed to overwhelm her.
“Fortunately,” Elaine concluded, “since I was unable to accelerate, myself, the Director was able to intervene before I hurt anyone. I was still choosing among my potential victims when he arrived.” She seemed to falter then — a surprising show of weakness for a vampire who was low on essence. “And then you arrived,” Elaine finished. But by that point I was hugging myself, too torn between the desire to bristle with fury or tremble in nauseous fear to hold Elaine’s brief sign of weakness against her.
The fuckers had got away?! But… What if they hadn’t left when Elaine lost control? Shit! I wanted them fucking dead! Except, the only reason they would have stuck around long enough for me to catch them would have been if they’d decided to fuck up Elaine worse than they had. They could have broken her arms and legs and thrown her into a dumpster and set it on fire. I kind of wanted to do something like that, since she’d let them get away. But if they’d just broken her until she went dormant, and then carted her off along with Salvatore and Lewellyn….
Fuck it. Shit happened, and I liked Elaine. She’d survived, and that was good. I’d just get those fuckers next time. They were on my list, now. In front of Fiore, even.
“I see,” Director Estevez said, interrupting my thoughts. He scowled, then flickered. One second he was there. Then he was gone. Then he was back again. Wha… my slightly overwhelmed brain started to ask, but he was already talking again.
“The van has been abandoned,” Estevez said grimly, and I realized that we had both heard Elaine’s story for the first time, together. Apparently I really had shown up right after Estevez.
“And I saw no sign of its occupants,” the Director continued. “I suspect that they fled while accelerated. Either to another vehicle, or to a safehouse where they could go to ground until daylight.” The director’s steely eyes shifted past Elaine, to me. “And what of your attempt to contact Linda Fleisher’s ghost?” He asked. “Did you meet with any success on that front?”
“I….” My throat closed up as both my human and vampire sides freaked out at their attempts to process what I’d just seen. My human side was flipping out at the causal time-fuckery. My vampire side at the sudden realization that Director Estevez was scarier than Mister Salvatore or Lewellyn.
Mister Salvatore had been self-starving, and Lewellyn had been burning up his essence casting geases on people — but even then, Lewellyn had easily kicked my ass in physical fights, and it had just been an unforseen interaction of our magics that let me turn the tables on him. Estevez wasn’t, as far as I could tell, doing either of those things.
And that meant that Director Estevez might actually be the first director I’d met who wasn’t at some sort of self-imposed — knowingly or unknowingly — disadvantage against me. In fact, it only went to prove his strength that when he fucked with time he moved so fast I really couldn’t see him — not even a blur.
Trust him, or don’t trust him? The question was very pertinent. After all, objectively speaking, every Director I’d met so far had been evil and wanted to kill me. That had to count for a lot, when it came to answering the question of trust. And I didn’t want to talk about how my hunt had gone. Fuck, I didn’t even want to think about it. Once I fed again, I just knew my pansy-ass mortal self was probably going to fall apart because Dopplinda had said things that hurt her feelings. So my dad wasn’t my dad? Boo fucking hoo.
“No,” I finally said. “I didn’t manage to find her ghost. I did recover the body, though,” I admitted — since the casket was sitting at the mouth of the alley. “I thought, maybe…” I groped for a reason to explain why I was dragging it along without having to explain about my wicked fairy grandmother, and faltered. Okay. The directors so far had been dickweeds, but the scions had turned out to be decent sorts, even if Fiore was kind of an overbearing jerk that I was was only keeping around as emergency ghoul-food. But still, the scions were like proto-directors, so if they weren’t innately evil…. And there was Elaine, too, on the ‘not all vampires are evil’ side. And how long would I really survive if I was constantly setting myself against the biggest bad I could find?
Fuuuuuuck. “It’s not Linda though,” I blurted. “It’s her sister.” I looked up into Estevez’s eyes and held his gaze for a beat. Just long enough to see them widen when he got what I meant.
“The changeling?” Estevez asked in shock. Elaine stiffened in surprise, too.
I nodded. “The casket is warded, so I’ve got her trapped in there. She was… hostile toward me. And she’s been bound by a geas not to talk about the people who tried to kill her sister,” I told them, “so she’s not really all that useful. But I did get out of her that Linda is still alive. Somewhere. I have no idea where.” I scowled and glared at Estevez. That was as far as I was willing to just bow down to his authority and hand him shit. “But, that doesn’t go in your report,” I told him sharply. “Obviously whoever these guys are they have ways of getting information out of the Center.” I looked pointedly back and forth between Elaine and Estevez. “They had some kind of a hold over Linda, and presumably access to any information that would’ve gone to Lewellyn or Salvatore. I’d bet that they can still get a hold of anything, information wise, that either of you could. So if we spill the beans about Linda still being alive, they’ll probably try again and then we really will be looking for a ghost.”
I didn’t like Linda, but I didn’t want her dead. I wanted her found, so she could lead me to the jackass vampire rapist arsonist who topped my personal ‘to kill violently’ list.
Director Estevez nodded, frowning in thought. “Yes,” he said. He glanced at the sealed casket and then back at me. “I will report that we recovered the body, but that attempts to contact Linda’s ghost via seance failed. I can keep the changeling locked up and under guard as ‘evidence’ until we can have trusted individuals set up a warded enclosure to release her into. Then we can see about questioning her as to Linda’s whereabouts.”
I wavered. Part of me was relieved at the idea of giving up custody of the casket with Dopplinda in it. Part of me bristled at the idea of giving her away for free — I caught her, and she was fucking mine to interrogate, and who the fuck did Estevez think he was to imply he could keep her somewhere more secure than I could?
But a larger part was terrified at the thought of anything else she might have to say. “She doesn’t go free,” I said, and I was surprised both by the steel in my voice and the fact that I was acquiescing. “The changeling. And I’m there if that casket is ever opened, or anything else is done to question her.” I didn’t want anyone to question my motives, but fortunately my autopilot obligingly provided a reasonable alternative to ‘I want to make sure she doesn’t say anymore shit about my family.’
“The things she’s already admitted to doing are criminal,” I said grimly. “We’re trying to set it up so that some faeries, moral faeries, can be a part of the supernatural society in this city.” Elaine appeared startled at that announcement, but Estevez didn’t bat an eye. It had probably been in one of his reports already. “That means rule by law,” I said, “and she’s going to have to answer for the things she’s done once we have those laws in place.”
Estevez’s gaze didn’t break from mine. “That is acceptable,” he said. “Obviously,” the Director continued, “I am now taking over the investigation into the vampire who attacked you and his involvement with Salvatore and Lewellyn. But it simply makes sense to have you there when the changeling is questioned, to dissuade her from attempting to escape — since you proved able to capture and contain her once already. And once I have gotten what information I can from her, I have no problem with relinquishing custody of her back over to you. I have absolutely no issue with you dealing with the internal affairs of your city as you will, so long as they do not threaten to spill out beyond the confines of your demesne or threaten the integrity of our society at large.”
The secret that a supernatural society exists, I translated — but at the same time, something in my chest constricted. Was it fear, or… pride? He’d just called the city mine, and he was a Director. Which meant… what, exactly? That the Center was officially recognizing me as someone they shouldn’t fuck with? That he was declaring me ‘not a rogue vampire,’ after all? That I would be held responsible for any and all supernatural fuckery that happened here, from now on?
Maybe I should start keeping a lower profile. Fewer burning buildings and gun battles in the streets and shit. It would probably be bad for my newfound acceptance by The Center if the mundane mortals started to unravel the big conspiracy around their hidden society because I kept getting involved in big, noisy, destructive messes.
“I gave you the chance you asked for,” Director Estevez continued to Elaine, “and it fell through.” He glanced back at me. “Abigail, I do hope you still accept the gesture as what it was, a token of good will, despite that. Regardless, this matter is one that clearly has spilled out of the bounds of your city. Indeed: it involves rogue Directors, and was likely never confined to your territory to begin with.” His gaze softened, and that caught me off guard. “You — both of you — have been through enough tonight. I want you to find a safe, secure place to rest and recover with your donors. I will take care of the continuing pursuit of Directors Salvatore and Lewellyn, and those people who have been acting on their behalf.”
I nodded, and so did Elaine. “Of course,” Elaine said. “And you will keep us apprised of developments,” she added with a flat certainty.
Estevez hesitated. “Of course,” he agreed. “You are still a part of my entourage,” he added. “We will discuss tonight’s events in more depth tomorrow. When you’ve recovered.”
There was some sort of subtext in that exchange that went completely over my head because I was distracted thinking about Megan and Emma. My donors. Well, my donors who were awake and on their way to me. When I looked back at Elaine and Estevez to see what I had missed, however, it seemed that their conversation was over.
And then Estevez vanished.
He didn’t flicker. One second he was there. The next he was gone. I yelped and whirled around to see where he had gone to, but he wasn’t in the alley. Dopplinda’s casket was gone, too. That sent a chill down my spine. How in the hell…. Had the casket contained Dopplinda’s aura so that Estevez’s didn’t snag on it while he was in sped up time, allowing him to carry her along with him? Or did he just have enough brute strength to overcome that resistance? Or…. I couldn’t think what else. I didn’t even know what the possibilities were.
I just knew that they — and by extension, Director Estevez — were very, very frightening.