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Its pristine scent sharpened on the air.
The night creature hurried on his way fearing the first wash of deadly pastel light would catch him in an unprotected state. He darted down the trash littered alleyway, just a flickering shadow, a stirring breeze to the derelicts slouching in those uncaring doorways. None realized how closely death passed them by. In their drink-glazed ignorance, they were blissfully unaware of what moved, unseen, amongst them.
Feeling the pinch of discomfort that came with brightening daylight, the dark being halted outside the heavy steel door barring entrance to his daytime lair. He risked much in his hesitation, as the seconds ticked toward dawn, but he risked more if he wasn't cautious now.
For the past few miles, he'd felt sure he was being followed.
Of course, that was impossible. Nothing could keep pace with his preternatural speed. Yet the uneasiness lingered, the sense that he was not alone. With all his self-preserving instincts tingling, he couldn't afford to seek his rest. Not until he was sure.
He scanned the dim alley, alarmed now by the way shadows began to lift and lighten. No movement there except from those unfortunates foraging for a meal in the huge garbage bins. No hint of threat. He looked up, squinting against the sky, now a dangerous degree paler. Above him, empty rooftops cut a harsh black line across that slated heaven. Nothing there except the softening hues of morning.
He tried to shake off his concern as he unlocked the door and slipped inside the building's cooler quiet. He wouldn't be safe even in these dark halls once daybreak peeled back the concealing cape of evening.
No more time for delay.
He swept down the narrow flight of stairs into the welcoming dankness of the cellar. There, cobwebs, broken beams and crumbling brick kept the curious away. He seeped like smoke through a keyhole-sized chink in the wall. Morning sparked at his heels.
Safe at last.
Issuing a huge sigh of relief, he reached the single object in the decay-laced sanctuary: a plain wooden box meant to embrace a weary soul for an eternity. But in his case, it was a temporary housing, one he rose from with each setting of the sun.
He threw up the lid. Wasting no time, he climbed into the padded interior which fit perfectly to his form after nearly a century. There, finally, he relaxed, surrounded by a sense of security.
Then he had time to gloat over the fulfilling events of the evening.
She'd been a housemaid hurrying across town to prepare the morning repast for the family in her care. She was nothing to look at — middle-aged, well beyond the blush of youth, with careworn face, work-worn hands, faded clothing and sensible shoes. But for him, the attraction went beyond surface shortcomings. Looks didn't matter, nor did wealth. She had the one vital element he desired above all others.
She was alive.
Or rather, she had been.
It hadn't been necessary to take her life. He could have taken what he needed then left her there, dazed and nearly drained, for some Samaritan to find. But he couldn't stop, he couldn't help himself once the glorious warmth coursed through him. By the time he remembered himself, she was already well past gone.
What did it matter, anyway? Who would miss her? Some spoiled rich merchants who would have to make their own coffee and spread their own jam?
He'd waited dangerously long to seek a victim for his feast. He was far from his sanctuary and in too great a rush to carefully disguise the cause of the woman's death. He'd dropped her into some thick shrubbery where her glazed eyes would greet the milkman some hours later. He knew better than to dash away, leaving death, discovery and dangerous supposition of the cause. He should have made it look like a robbery gone awry. But he held a superior disdain toward such precautions. Humans were such fools. Why should he go to such great lengths to hide the truth from those who were too blind to see it?
Besides, he couldn't afford to be caught in daylight.
So he'd been careless. Again. So what?
He gloried in the scent that came with him — his victim's blood, entwined with faint traces of the woman's floral perfume and the harsher bite of cleaning fluids. Her fatal struggles left those lasting impressions upon him, and he would enjoy them as he sought his rest.
He liked it when they fought him. It made the ultimate victory that much sweeter. He smiled as he sank back upon the faded satin, drowsiness overcoming him immediately in a pleasurable wave.
He was still smiling to himself when the startling truth hit home.
He was not alone.
His dark bower had been breached.
With a ferocious snarl, he started up and was met solidly by the downward slam of the coffin's lid. As he lay dazed and helpless in the thrall of daybreak, he heard a soft, mocking voice above the sound of nails being driven through hard wood, sealing him inside his daily tomb.
THERE WAS NOTHING unusual about the sight of a woman escorting her loved one to a final rest. Tragic perhaps, because the woman was so young, but not unusual. Those strangers she passed bowed their heads out of respect, and some crossed themselves as they mouthed words of comfort for the deceased. The young mourner walked on, unmindful of them, apparently lost to grief.
A sleek, black hearse waited at the edge of the platform, wreathed in smoke from the train. Its back doors were opened in readiness. The woman stood to one side as the casket was carefully slipped into the back. Her quiet words stirred the heavy black veil obscuring her features from the travelers hurrying by.
"Quickly now. The sun will be setting soon."
As the vehicle pulled away from the crowded station, the woman climbed into a waiting automobile. As she sat upon the stiff back seat, she rolled up her veil and inserted a slim cigarette holder between soft lips set in a solemn line.
"Any trouble, Miss Frederica?"
She met the driver's gaze in the rearview mirror and offered a reassuring smile. "No, Oscar. Everything went exactly as planned."
"He'll be glad to hear it."
She made a noncommittal sound and leaned forward to accept his offer of a match. For a moment, her face was hidden behind a blue haze. Then she exhaled and sat back with a sigh.
"Let's not keep him waiting."
A LONG WAREHOUSE of riveted steel hunched down along the riverfront. The docks, always bustling during the day, slowed into the leisurely pace of twilight as two vehicles drew up at its fenced perimeter. Two men, whose bulky coats couldn't conceal the fact that they were heavily armed, approached the gate. After exchanging a few brief words with the driver of the car, they unlocked the chains to open the way inside. A sign hung above the entrance, but the name had worn away with the weathering of time.
Several indistinguishable figures emerged from one of the buildings, waiting for the hearse to come to a stop. Then, they served as silent pallbearers, carrying the unadorned coffin upon their shoulders while the woman from the car followed close behind. If any gathered there thought it a strange setting for a final memorial, none expressed it.
The room they entered was in complete darkness. They placed the wooden crate almost reverently upon a cement floor. The men faded back into shadow. Only the unveiled woman remained. A small circle of light flared as she fired the wick of the lantern she carried. She set it down on the floor and went to work with the other tool she'd brought with her. The hammer's claw wrenched the spikes from the coffin's lid, each giving with a shriek against the surrounding silence. When the last one pulled free, the woman stepped back.
"Carlos Vincente," she called out in a loud, clear voice. "Come forth to face your judges."
The lid flew off the box as if by an explosive force. Carlos Vincente, thought dead to his family and friends for over one hundred years, sprang from his prison, a raging demon. The woman remained calm and unconcerned as lurid eyes fixed upon her and thin lips rolled back to expose fangs that glistened with deadly intent.
"Prepare to die, puta," he growled.
She only smiled. "I don't think so."
Slowly, illumination spread throughout the room.
It wasn't empty, as Carlos at first believed. It contained tier upon tier of seats, perhaps three dozen of them. And in each seat was a cloaked and hooded figure. As he considered this sudden greater threat, Vincente forgot the woman.
"Who are you? What do you want with me?" he demanded, ready for fight or flight, whichever would serve him better.
One figure separated from the others. The hood was pushed back, revealing a swarthy man with eyes as dark and hard as onyx chips. "We are your corps du jugement. You were brought before us to answer for your crimes."
"Crimes? What crimes?" The slight tremor in his voice betrayed his bold stance as an ugly suspicion formed. He'd heard rumors ...
"You are being tried for the reckless murder of human beings."
"Murder?" Vincente laughed, dismissing the claim with a wave of an elegant white hand. It trembled. "It's no crime for our kind to feed upon mortals."
"Not to feed, to kill."
That clarifying claim hung upon the silence for a long beat, the wait giving it an ominous emphasis. The speaker continued.
"You have endangered all of us with your slaughter of innocents. You were warned, but chose not to obey. Now, you must face the consequence of your greed and foolish arrogance. Will you, Carlos Vincente, renounce the old ways and know acceptance, again, within our fold? Will you show proper reverence for human life and thereby become our brother once more?"
"Reverence? I see no reason to change, not for the sake of those pathetic humans, and not on your say so. Who are you to judge me?" he shouted, challenging them all with the sweep of his glare.
He could scent his own fear sharpening.
"We are as you are, no more, no less," the stoic speaker continued in his heavily accented voice. "And as your peers, we reserve the right to name the penalty for your defiance of our laws. And that penalty is death. May God have mercy upon your soul. We shall have none."
As Vincente shrieked obscenities and fled for the door, the robed figures were still no longer. They swooped down from their seats of judgment like dark birds of prey, descending upon the hapless Spaniard who had as little chance of escape as his victim of the previous night. As his screams filled the cavernous room, the speaker, saddened yet satisfied that his sentence was being carried out, left the violent debacle aware that the woman followed.
Upon entering the rooms in the rear of the warehouse, one would think they'd stepped into an elegant apartment rather than the office of a dirty import/export firm. Thick walls muffled the sound of industry from the waterfront, just as they muted the frenzy they'd left behind. Marchand LaValois crossed to an ornately carved sideboard to pour himself a glass of rich red wine. He drank it down in a quick swallow then wiped his mouth with an unsteady hand. The wine was a poor substitute for what he really thirsted for, but he prided himself on being civilized. And a civilized being didn't cave in to blood lust.
"Oscar said you had no trouble with Vincente." He cleared his throat, pretending it wasn't hunger that made his words so hoarse. Then, he turned toward the black-garbed woman.
She shrugged, the gesture nonchalant. "Vincente was a fool, an easy mark. It's amazing no one had staked him out in the sun long before this."
Marchand frowned as the young woman removed her veiled hat and black outer garments. He disapproved of what he saw as well as what he heard.
She was the image of her mother, but that timeless beauty had altered to fit a more modern era. Her slender hand raked through a bob of tousled black hair, the gesture momentarily distracting Marchand from the scandalously short hemline of the young woman's dress ... if one could call the straight slip of jade-colored crepe de Chine with its long loops of precocious pearls a decent dress.
"Don't dismiss him and those like him so easily, Frederica. The old ones are a dangerous and unpredictable breed. Your confidence could be your downfall."
She regarded him through a steady emerald stare. Her tone was cool and unconcerned. "I am never careless. That's why I'm so good at what I do."
He scowled, not impressed. "What you do is a service for your kind who hope to blend into this twentieth century without dangerous fanfare. It is not a point of vanity, so don't look so smug with your accomplishments. You have a unique talent, Rica, one that provides us with a decided upper hand in dealing with the undead. It is an inherited gift, not to be squandered or boasted about."
At that, Frederica's direct gaze lowered, giving her a properly chastised air. Marchand wasn't fooled. Instead, he sighed in fond exasperation.
"Rica, it's not my intention to scold you. It's my love for you that makes me decry these unnecessary risks you take. You are my only child. It would devastate me if you came to any harm because you failed to display proper caution. And your mother would never forgive me."
Her sparkling eyes canted up, her smile teasing him into relaxing his authoritative stance. When he opened his arms wide, she stepped forward to fill them, claiming, "I am careful, Father. I know the seriousness of what I do, and I would never fail you by taking my position lightly."
Hugging her close, Marchand breathed in the scent of her short hair, cherishing this independent child rare good fortune had given him.
What would he do without her?
"You know my position, Rica. It must be unbending if we're to bring any kind of rule to those who would follow the old ways and threaten our survival. We can no longer afford to be seen as vile creatures of the damned feasting off the blood of mortals in an animalistic frenzy. The days of hiding behind superstition are through." How could he impress this upon his bold and fearless child? He had to try, for her sake.
"We can no longer command the fear that assures our safety, not in this modern world that's gone to war with itself. After facing death in foreign trenches, what man will shrink at the thought of vampires in the night? If we are not careful, we will be hunted down like unwanted vermin until every last one of us is destroyed. That is not the future I want for myself and my family."
"Nor I, Father." She stepped back from his embrace, becoming his intense and serious reflection once more. "That's why I do what I must with the skills that I have. And I insist that you not let your affection for me stand in the way of sending me out amongst those who would jeopardize us all. Your cause is my own."
Marchand touched her cheek, marveling at its natural warmth when his own was as cold as marble. So lovely, so deceivingly frail. Filled with a father's love and concern, he wanted to voice his feelings, those of pride and anxious care. He stayed silent because he knew how she'd receive such sentiments — with irritation or embarrassment. And then their all too few moments together would be colored with awkwardness rather than enjoyment.
What else could he say?
She was very much his daughter. She'd been raised to be tough, independent and resourceful. Too late to wish that character contained a trace of tenderness as well.
Regret pinched his expression as he turned away.
"And I must send you out again, Rica, though your mother has begged me to bring you home with me. I know it's too soon and that you've earned a rest."
"I'm ready, Father. There's no reason for delay."
He smiled, weary for her. "Good girl. Have you a message for your mother?"
"Tell her I'll return when I've accomplished what I must. And tell her I'm being careful. Really. The way she fusses, one would think I was human." She smiled indulgently, holding the image of her mother in her heart, before becoming serious and focused once more.
"Where do I go this time?"
HOURS LATER, Frederica LaValois tucked a train ticket into her pocket. Gone were the trappings of mourning. As she crossed the freshly scrubbed warehouse floor, her expression was one of sharp anticipation, an eager huntress on her father's business. Her walk betrayed a spring of strength and confidence and something more, something that set Frederica LaValois apart as decidedly unusual.
Excerpted from "Midnight Gamble"
Copyright © 2000 Nancy Gideon.
Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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