"Who are these guys?" Jason asked out loud what I was wondering.
Caleb glanced behind. "Why would someone be following us?"
"Reporters?" Jason made the word a question.
"I don't think so," I said. I'd lost sight of everything but the top of the Jeep floating above the car roofs behind us.
"Which way do I turn?" He'd come to the bottom of the exit ramp.
I shook my head. "I don't know, dealer's choice." Who were they? Why follow us? Usually when people start following me I know that I'm into something. Today, I had no clue. Neither of the current cases that I was helping RPIT with should have had people following me. I wished they were reporters, but the situation didn't have that feel to it.
Jason turned right. One car turned left, one turned right, and the Jeep pulled in behind it. There were little flags on the street signs, Italian flags with the words, "The Hill," on them. People on The Hill always let you know you were there and they loved their Italian heritage. Even the fire hydrants were painted green, red, and white like the flags.
Nathaniel raised his head off my thigh enough to say, "Is it Belle?"
"What?" I asked, vision still glued to the side mirror.
"Are they daytime help for Belle?" he asked in his quiet voice.
I thought about that. I'd never run into a vamp that had more than one human servant, but I'd run into several that had more than one Renfield. Renfield is what most American vamps called humans that served them not through mystical connections, but because they acted as blood donors and wanted to be vampires themselves. Back when I hunted vampires and didn't sleep with them, I'd called all humans associated with vamps human servants, now I knew better.
"They could be Renfields, I guess."
"What's a Renfield?" Caleb asked. He was turned in the seat looking directly back at the car between us and the blue Jeep.
"Turn around, Caleb. When that car turns off I don't want the Jeep to know we've noticed them."
He turned around immediately without arguing, which was unusual for Caleb. I didn't approve of threatening people to gain their obedience, but there were some that nothing else seemed to work with. Maybe he was one of them.
I explained what a Renfield was.
"Like the guy in Dracula who ate insects," Caleb said.
"Exactly," I said.
"Cool," he said, and seemed to mean it.
I'd once asked Jean-Claude what they called Renfields before the release of the book Draculain 1897. Jean-Claude had said, "Slaves." He'd probably been kidding, but I'd never had the heart to ask again.
The car behind us pulled into one of the narrow driveways. The blue Jeep was suddenly revealed. I forced myself to not look directly at it and only use the side mirror, but it was hard. I wanted to turn around and stare. Knowing that I shouldn't made it all the more tempting.
There was nothing ominous about the Jeep, or even the two men visible in it. They both had short hair, clean, well groomed; the Jeep was even shiny and clean. The only thing ominous was the fact that they were still behind us. Then . . . it turned into a narrow driveway. Just like that, not a threat.
"Shit," I said.
"Ditto," Jason said, but I saw his shoulder sag, as if tension drained away with that one word.
"Are we becoming too paranoid?" I asked.
"Maybe," Jason said, but he was still spending almost as much time staring back in the rearview mirror as straight ahead, as if he couldn't quite believe it. Neither could I, so I didn't tell him to watch the road. He was watching forward okay, and I, too, was expecting the blue Jeep to pull out and start after us again. Just a ruse, guys, not really harmless after all. But it didn't happen. We drove down the long car-crowded street, until the Jeep's driveway was hidden by trees and parked cars.
"Looks like it was just driving our way," Jason said.
"Looks like," I said.
Nathaniel rubbed his face against my leg. "You still smell scared, like you don't believe it."
"I don't believe it," I said.
"Why not?" Caleb asked, leaning in between the seats from the backseat.
I finally turned around in the seat, but I wasn't looking at Caleb, I was staring past him at the empty street. "Experience," I said.
I smelled roses, and a second later the cross around my neck began to glow, softly.
"Jesus," Jason whispered.
My heart was thumping painfully in my chest, but my voice came solid. "She can't roll me while I'm wearing a cross."
"You sure of that?" Caleb asked it, as he moved back away from me into the far reaches of the seat.
"Yeah," I said, "I'm sure of that."
"Why?" he asked, eyes wide.
I blinked at him as the soft, white luminosity grew brighter in the tree shadows, almost invisible in full sunlight, over and over again. "Because I believe," I said, voice soft as the glow around my neck, and as sure. I'd seen crosses burst into a white-hot light so bright it was blinding, but that was when I'd been face-to-face with a vamp that meant me harm. Belle was far away, and the glow showed that.
I kept waiting for the scent of roses to grow stronger again, but it never did. It stayed faint, definitely there, but didn't grow on the air.
I waited for Belle's voice in my head, but it didn't come. Every time she had spoken directly in my mind, the smell of roses had been thick. The sweet perfume stayed faint, and Belle's voice was gone from me. I squeezed the cross with my hand, feeling the heat, the power of it, skin prickling up my arm, thrumming like a continuous heartbeat against my hand. Caleb asked how could I believe. What I always wanted to ask, is, how can you notbelieve?
I felt Belle's anger like warmth on the air. Power filled the Jeep, in a neck-ruffling, breath-stealing tide, so much effort and all she could send was an image of herself sitting in front of her dressing table. Her long, black hair was unbound, like a cloak around a dressing gown of gold and black. She watched herself in the mirror with eyes full of honey-fire, like the eyes of the blind, empty except for the color of her power.
I whispered out loud, "You cannot touch me, not now."
She looked into the mirror as if I were standing behind her, and she could see me. Rage changed her beauty into something frightening, a mere mask of pale beauty that looked as false as any Halloween mask. Then she turned and looked past me, beyond me, and the look of fear on her face was so real, so unexpected that I turned, too, and I saw . . . something.
Darkness. Darkness like a wave, rising up, up over me, over us, like a liquid mountain towering to the impossibly tall sky. The room that Belle had constructed of dreams and power collapsed, shredded like the dream it was, and what ate at the corners of that bright candlelit room was darkness. Darkness absolute, darkness so black that it held shines of other colors, like an oil slick, or a trick of the eye. As if this blackness was a darkness made up of every color that had ever existed, every sight that had ever been seen, every sigh, every scream, since time began. I had heard the term primordialdarkness,but until this moment I had never understood what it meant. Now I understood, I truly understood, and I despaired.
I stared up, up at an ocean of darkness that rose above me as if the earth and sky had never existed. This was darkness before the light, before the word of God. It was like a breath of an older creation. But if this was creation, it was nothing I could understand, nothing I wanted to understand.
Belle screamed first. I think I was too awestruck to scream, or even to be afraid. I looked into the primordial abyss, the first darkness, and knew despair, but not fear.
My mind kept trying to find words to describe what it was. It did loom over me like a mountain, because it had weight and that claustrophobic feel of a mountain poised to come crashing down, but it was not a mountain. It was more like an ocean, if an ocean could have risen up taller than the tallest mountain and stood before you, waiting, defying gravity and every other known law of physics. Like with an ocean, I knew--could sense--that I only saw that wide glimpse from shore, that I could only begin to guess at the depth and width, the unthinkable fathoms of darkness that lay before me.
Did strange creatures swim inside it? Were there things within the dark that only nightmares or dreams could reveal? I watched the flickering, liquid dark and felt the numbness of despair begin to wear away. It was as if the despair had been a shield to protect me, to numb me, so that my mind wouldn't break. For a few moments I had been intellect, thinking, What is it?How can I make sense of it? The numbness began to recede as if that huge blackness sucked it away, fed on it. I was left standing before her, her . . . trembling, shaking, my skin running cold, and I felt that darkness sucking at me, feeding off my warmth. In that moment I knew what I faced. It was a vampire. Maybe the very first vampire, something so ancient, that to think of human bodies or flesh to contain this darkness was laughable. She was the primordial dark made real. She was why humans feared the dark, just the darkness, not what lies in the dark, not what hides there, but why we fear the darkness itself. There was a time when she walked among us, fed on us, and when darkness falls, somewhere in the back of our skulls, we remember the hungry dark.