The Sectiuna’s Headquarters, May
“Sacre, if Ah stay heah much longer, Ah’m gonna go blind.” Blinking, Vashon Lafitte looked from the computer screen to the map on the desk beside his keyboard. With thumb and forefinger, he rubbed his eyes as they began to sting.
He was no closer to finding his target than he’d been on the night Jenny Matthews’ grandson told them he’d been contacted by the mysterious man calling himself R.
It didn’t take much of an imagination to guess the stranger’s real identity. It had to be Mircea Ravagiu.
Vashon and his men had gone all out to discover where the renegade was hiding. They’d searched the ruins in K-Ville and gone to other sections of New Orleans where remains continued giving monument to Katrina’s devastation.
That didn’t make their search any easier. Even this far removed from the event, the city was still not fully recovered from the hurricane. There were too many places to hide, too many deserted shacks and half-standing hulks and too much magic which could be obtained and used to shield a fugitive.
Vashon was certain Ravagiu was hiding in the bayous. From the moment the Strigoi family appeared and Billy-Jacques, leader of the Southeastern Seaboard and Southern Regiune, took them under his shield, his Head of Security was assigned to search for the renegade who’d killed their parents, their younger brother, and eventually most of their servants. Though he had the entire city of New Orleans and its surrounds to patrol, Vashon did as he was told. He might be Cajun, born and bred in Bayou Noir with little idea of the way those from the Motherland did things, but he was also aventurieri, or, as humans commonly called his kind…a vampire.
That meant he understood the desire for revenge.
Even if he hadn’t, his sectiuna ordered it, so he hastened to obey.
Unfortunately, as yet he’d produced no results. Though thus far, the hadn’t demanded an accounting of his failure, Vashon was certain it was coming. After all, there’d been two attacks on the Strykers, as they now called themselves, either of which could’ve been fatal. Even if Marc Stryker refused a bodyguard, legally absolving the sectiuna from future mishaps, morally Billy-Jacques wouldn’t accept that. If his constituents were threatened, his men should be able to find the culprit.
An’ Ah’d better do it soon.
Vashon wasn’t in any danger of corporal punishment if he failed. However, he could be replaced. That was a humiliation he didn’t want to face. He’d been the sectiuna’s Authorité since before the Great War, had protected Billy-Jacques, his family, and his city from the beginning of the old century into this new one. He wasn’t about to let this rapitor shame him further by remaining at large much longer.
Ah gotta stop for th’ night.
He’d sign out, drop by and see his bon-bon, giving his brain a rest. It was beginning to hurt. Then he’d head home and get some sleep, and tomorrow night, begin searching the bayous one by one.
Tha’s what Ah’ll do.
Logging off the computer, he turned out the lights, thought of Timothy Jordan’s apartment near the Tulane campus, and took himself there.
Schimbaţi…transporting…was a handy thing to know. As Head of Security he’d been taught by the sectiuna himself, a feat not usually learned until an aventurieri hit the eight hundred mark.
Because of this extra benefit, Vashon didn’t own an automobile. He considered himself lucky Timothy was such a homebody he rarely wanted to go out when they were together. That way he never had to explain his lack of wheels.
Upon arriving in a swirl of what appeared to be shining dust motes, he paused a moment to smooth his hair. It was past shoulder length and transporting always managed to tousle it. Vashon made certain his clothing was settled, no buttons or zips loosened during the transition. Then he knocked on the door.
It was opened immediately, Timothy smiling like the Raggedy Andy doll he resembled.
“Vash! I didn’t expect to see you tonight.” Carroty curls bouncing, he stepped back, swinging the door wide. “Come on in. Did you catch that guy who threatened your boss’ friends?”
At this point, Vashon was still vague in his explanations to Timothy as to exactly what he did for a living. The boy thought he was part of a personal protection agency, a bodyguard for hire. He kept putting off a full explanation, telling himself there’d be time enough for the truth later, delaying the moment when he’d have to explain to the little human who’d won his heart exactly what he was.
“Not yet.” Vashon heaved a gusty sigh, Louisiana accent in full swing as evidence of his fatigue. “An’ Ah swear, bonbon, it’s exhaustin’ me.”
“It’s difficult for me to believe there’s someone so vicious running around.” Timothy took Vashon’s jacket as he slid out of it, hanging it in the closet near the door. “I know, I know…people get killed in New Orleans every day. It’s as violent a city as New York or San Francisco, but I haven’t seen as much of that as I guess you have, so…”
“Please, petit, le’s not talk ’bout it.” Vashon was as close to begging as he’d ever be. This Ravagiu business was getting into his bones, exhausting him, and he feared it might cause him to overlook something he shouldn’t. “Ah jus’ came by t’ see you a bit ’fore Ah go home.”
“You’re not going to stay?” Timothy’s tone held obvious disappointment.
His Cupid’s bow lower lip protruded slightly in a mock-pout making Vashon briefly re-consider what he’d said.
“It’s late, petit.” Vashon was startled to hear a near-whine in his voice. Merde. “Ah need to get some sleep an’ you got early classes. Ah jus’ wanted t’ see my bon-bon a minute t’ give me sweet dreams t’night.”
Better than dreams of Ravagiu, by a damn sight.
“So you’re simply going to pop in, say, Hi Timothy, and be on your way? I swear, Vash, you’re as bad as Dan Stryker…” As Vashon gave him a very cold scowl, Timothy immediately backtracked. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re nothing like Dan.”
“Don’ mean-mouth mon copain,” Vashon warned. “He’s a good man. He jus’ wasn’t th’ raht one for you, bon-bon. Me, Vashon, Ah am.” He thumped himself on the chest. “An’ Ah don’ pop in. Ah stay, plenty times.”
“You can stay tonight, too,” Timothy said firmly. “You can sleep here as well as at home. It’ll save you having to drive there tomorrow night. When I leave for classes in the morning, I’ll be quiet and you can sleep in the entire day.”
Along with the other fabrications necessary to keep up the pretense he was human, Vashon told the boy he headed up the night shift for his employer. Timothy, bless his trusting little deomi heart, didn’t question it.
“Ah’d lak t’ stay,” Vashon conceded. He took exactly one minute to vacillate. “Okay, you talked me int’ it. But…” He held up an admonishing finger. “No lovin’ t’night. Ah’m way too tired.”
“Don’t tell me you have a headache?” Timothy laughed.
“Matter of fac’…” Vashon rubbed his temples. They were pulsing. Too much staring at a computer screen, no doubt.
“I can help with that,” Timothy put a hand on Vashon’s shoulder, finger walking across his collarbone and up his throat to his chin.
The Cajun moved away. “Don’ try usin’ those sweet li’l tricks on me. Din’ I say…”
“Wouldn’t think of it.” The boy hurried to a small cabinet near the bathroom door, opening it and taking out a towel. “Go. Take a shower.”
He tossed the towel to Vashon who caught it but didn’t move.
“It’ll help you relax. And when you come out…”
“Oh no…Ah come out heah naked, Ah know ’zactly whut you’ll do.” In spite of his arguments, Vashon smiled, memories of what generally happened when he and Timothy were together playing through his mind. “Granted gettin’ th’ blood goin’s a good way t’ relieve a headache, but Ah swear…t’night, mon petit chou, Ah jes’ ain’t up for it…”
He looked down. Damn, there was a small tent in the front of his jeans. As usual when around Timothy, his body was making him a liar.
“Stop that, you,” he growled at the unruly, unseen organ.
“I promise…no funny business.” Timothy held up one hand, the other going to his heart. “I mean it.” He looked serious. “I’ve some ointment my Grandma Broussard made for me when I used to have migraines. It’ll send that headache scrambling away so you can get a good night’s sleep.” He smiled, mimicking Vashon’s own accent. “Ah ga-ron-tee.”
“Well…” Giving the boy a dubious look, Vashon draped the towel over his shoulder and stalked into the bathroom.
When Timothy Jordan met Daniel Stryker at a coffee shop near the Tulane campus, he was completely ignorant that the man he saw nursing a cup of coffee was a two hundred and thirty-nine-year-old vampire at the beginning of a sexual siege. Timmie was normally a fairly shy person but in Dan, he liked what he saw and for the one and only time in his life decided to be uncharacteristically bold. He came on to Dan, beginning an affaire ended a short time later with the boy attempting suicide after Dan broke up with him.
Just as Timothy was unaware of Dan’s true nature, he also had no idea his ex-lover had been celibate for nearly two centuries because he couldn’t come to terms with his bisexuality. All he knew was the man he loved had tossed him aside to marry a woman and he didn’t want to live.
When Dan’s later engagement to Ana Richardson was announced, he met Timothy once more, this time with Vashon Lafitte in tow, offering apologies and the big Cajun. A kind of consolation prize, Timothy had called Vashon.
Vashon Lafitte proved more than that. With Billy-Jacques’ Head of Security, Timothy found the man he wanted and the way he’d felt about Dan Stryker was now a memory.
In the bathroom, Vashon regulated the taps and the pipes rumbled and sang. In a bit, he was singing along with them, a slightly off-key version of Hank Williams’ hits, Jambalaya. To the background noise of running water and his lover’s tuneless baritone, Timothy hurried into the bedroom, turning back the covers and getting his grandmother’s soothing concoction to assuage that headache.
Fifteen minutes later, when Vashon emerged, towel wrapped around his waist and his head encased in another, Timothy held his breath a moment. He couldn’t help it. Vashon Lafitte wasn’t tall as most aventurieri, being right at the six-foot mark, but he definitely towered over his little human. Timothy didn’t like men who were too tall and as far as he was concerned, Vashon was just right. Vash laughed when he told him that.
“Jus’ don’ call me Goldilocks, okay?” He’d winked and turned a blue-eyed leer on the boy, “Unles’ you gon’ be baby bear?”
Okay, get serious, Timothy told himself as he remembered what happened after that remark. Tonight, Vash needed rest, not playing around, and he was going to get it.
“Come in here and lie down.” He took the Cajun’s hand, leading him toward the bedroom doorway.
“Petit, Ah tol’ you…” Giving his hair a final swipe, Vashon tossed the towel onto a chair and looked at him through a black tangle.
“I merely want you to lie down,” Timothy repeated. He held up the little jar of ointment. “It’ll be easier for me to massage your shoulders if you’re on the bed.”
“You don’t even have to take off the towel.” Timothy gestured.
That ought to convince him, if I don’t want him completely naked.
Timothy loved Vashon’s body. He never missed a chance to let him know but tonight was definitely not the time. If the boy learned anything from his association with Dan Stryker, it was that he had to stop being pushy when it came to wanting physical attention.
Standing on tiptoe, he caught Vashon’s face in his hands, looking into those blue eyes. “I can see you’re not feeling well. You’re tired…and I want to help you relax.”
Vashon allowed himself to be led into the bedroom, where he pushed back the sheets and sprawled facedown on the bed, raising his head long enough to say, “If Ah fall asleep, don’ get mad, petit.”
“Don’t worry.” Climbing onto the bed beside him, Timothy opened the jar, scooping out two fingers of ointment.
“Smells lak choc’late,” Vashon murmured.
“That’s the cocoa butter. This may be a little cold.” Timothy smeared it across the broad shoulders.
“A li’l!” The flesh of Vashon’s shoulders actually quivered. “Sacre, where you been keepin’ that? In th’ fridge? It’s lak ice water.”
“Shh…” Timothy began to smooth the cream, rubbing it into Vashon’s skin. “Just relax…don’t worry if you go to sleep.”
His fingers dug deeply as they touched the tendons in the Cajun’s neck.
“Damn, Vash, I’ll say you’re tense. Your neck muscles are like iron cords. No wonder you have a headache.”
“This case is worryin’ th’ devil outta me.” Vashon’s answer was muffled. He folded his arms under his head, resting his cheek on them as he shut his eyes.
Timothy’s hands moved down his neck to either side of his spine.
“Your shoulders are the same way. I swear… you’ve actually got knots…”
Between each shoulder blade and his spine, there was a small bundle of muscle, spasmed so tightly it was visible through the skin. Timothy studied one.
“This may hurt a bit.” He leaned forward, placing the heel of each hand against a knot, pressing in with all his slight weight behind it.
There was a ripping sound, a shout from Vashon, and something struck him in the face with such force he was knocked from the bed and sent flying across the room. Rebounding off the wall, Timothy slid to the floor in a dazed heap.
His face felt numb. Something was dripping into his eyes, something sticky. My forehead’s wet. He put up a hand, looked disbelievingly at the bright red on his fingers.
From a stunned haze, Vashon’s horrified cry came to him. Something rose from the bed, a dark thing, big and bulky with red, glowing eyes, and…
It ran to him, hovering. Through the film of blood, he saw great black wings and shining fangs. Hands touched his shoulders.
“Get away!” Timothy put his hands over his face. “Vash? Where are you? Vash!”
He began to struggle but the thing held him tightly, stifling his movements as it pulled his hands away. It leaned toward him. He felt something touch his forehead, swipe across it and down his cheek. It was warm and damp and he was reminded of the way the family dog used to lick his face.
Lick? It’s licking me? Yuck!
When he opened his eyes this time, Vashon was kneeling beside him, brushing back the blood-stiffened hair falling into his eyes. There was something floating behind his head. Timothy couldn’t get his eyes to focus well enough to see what it was.
“Jus’ lie still, bonbon. You be okay inna minute,” Vashon soothed in that the soft Cajun voice. He began to stroke the boy’s cheek. “Shhh, petit, it’s all raht.”
“Vash, what happened? What was that?”
“You leaned back too far. You los’ your balance an’ fell.”
‘What are you talking about?”
Timothy knew it hadn’t happened that way.
“Something…something hit me in the face.” He shoved away from the wall. “I need to get up.”
“Don’ move, petit…” Hands on his shoulders kept him in place.
Pushing them away, Timothy struggled to his feet, staggering to the mirror over the dresser. He blinked and his face, with a deep scratch on his forehead and a rapidly blackening eye, stared back at him.
“If I fell backward…” He whirled to look at Vashon, scowling. “How’d I get this cut on my forehead…and a black eye?”
The Cajun got to his feet.
“Something came out of your back,” Timothy went on. “It hit me…”
He tried to peer around the Cajun. Vashon dodged, turning so he couldn’t. Timothy thought he heard a rustling.
“You ’magined it,” Vashon said. “You prob’ly got a concussion. Maybe Ah should call th’ EMS.”
He reached out, fingers touching Timothy’s forehead. They began to stroke gently.
“Shh…relax, petit….shhh…” His voice fell into a monotone.
Timothy blinked. His eyes closed, then jerked open as he began to wobble slightly
“Stop that.” He slapped away Vashon’s hand, then ran into the living room.
Vashon started to follow. As he reached the doorway, his wings struck the doorframe and he stepped back, collapsing them. By the time he got into the living room, he found Timothy pacing frantically, wringing his hands.
“Omigod. What was it?” Fear battled with reason and was winning as the boy’s voice went into a panicky shrill. “Oh-my-God…”
“Timmie, calm down, you gettin’ over-excited.”
“Over-excited?” Timothy’s voice rose several decibels more. “Considering I saw my lover sprout wings and fangs, don’t you think I’ve a right? A little? What are you?” He took a step backward and kept moving until there was ten feet between them.
“Ah’m Vashon,” he said, as if that were enough of an answer.
“You’re more than that,” the boy accused, shaking his head.
“Calm down, petit.” Vashon struggled to keep his tone reasonable. “You know me.”
“Do I?” Timothy had a look saying he wasn’t buying it, though Vashon sensed the boy wanted to. “I don’t think so. Not at all.”
“Le’s talk this over.”
“You’re damned right we’re going to talk it over.”
It came out in a near-snarl startling Vashon. His Timmie never raised his voice.
“After I take something for pain.”
He disappeared into the bathroom. There was the sound of the medicine chest opening and closing, the rattle of pills, water running. Timothy reappeared with a glass in his hand. He put something into his mouth, tossed it down with the water and set down the glass.
“Now then, I want to know…”
“Ever’thin’. Ah’ll tell you ever’thin’ Ah swear,” Vashon promised, desperately. “Le’s jus’ be cool…”
He dropped into the nearest chair. The towel gaped. He quickly tucked it around his thighs.
“Sit down, Timmie.” When the boy didn’t move, he added, “Please.”
Nevertheless, Timothy went behind the sofa, making it a barrier between them. He swallowed loudly, looked around, and picked up a large wooden candlestick holder from a nearby table.
The thing was solid maple, sanded and polished, probably weighing several pounds. Timothy had told him his Grandfather Broussard had carved it as a birthday gift for him.
Vashon was startled. Is he planning to use that as a weapon? Not that it would stop a charging vampire…
“Before you say anything else, there’s one thing I have to know.” Seizing the holder by its neck, Timothy hefted it. In that moment, he looked scared to death but determined.
Vashon gave him an inquisitive stare.
“Are you going to kill me?”
“Ki…” Vashon didn’t have to pretend to be shocked. He was. “You’re my petit chou, my amour, why Ah want t’ hurt you?”
“All right then.” That answer seemed to be what the boy wanted to hear. “I’m going to trust you.”
Still gripping the candlestick holder, he came around the sofa and dropped onto it.
There was a brief, uncomfortable silence.
“So? Let’s talk.” Timothy gestured impatiently with his improvised weapon. “Man to man…uh…man to creature…uh…whatever you are.”
“Ah’m jus’ a man, douce,” Vashon protested.
“Oh, you’re much more than that.”
“Din’ Ah always say so?” Vashon allowed himself a little smirk, encouraged when Timothy rolled his eyes slightly and glanced heavenward.
“Talk,” the boy ordered, regaining his scowl.
“First, let me say…” Vashon’s hesitation was so slight it went unnoticed. “…if Ah tell you what you want t’ know…”
“What? You’ll have to kill me?” To his surprise, Timothy gave a sardonic laugh. “Let me remind you…you said you wouldn’t. Going to make yourself into a liar? As well as whatever else you are?”
“This knowledge, it’s dang’rous. You have t’ swear t’ tell no one. Ah mean, not anyone, not your cousin, or your parents…nobody.”
“I promise, Vash.” Again Timothy made that childish gesture, hand over heart. “Whatever you tell me goes no further. I can keep a secret,” he added, a little petulantly. “I never told anyone about Dan until the night I… I think that proves I can be quiet.” He paused, then said softly, “Just tell me, Vash. What are you?”
Vashon took a deep breath. “We call ourselves aventurieri. Humans call us vampires…”
After he finished, Timothy simply sat there, staring at him. His face was two shades lighter than pale, so white Vashon braced himself, ready to leap to his feet and catch him if he fainted.
“Petit? Please say somethin’.”
“H-how…” Timothy had to swallow twice before he got out the question. “How many a-aventurieri are there?”
“Enough.” Vashon really had no idea. “Not as many as there are humans.”
“And your boss, and the Strykers… they’re all like you? Dan’s one, too?”
“What about his fiancée?”
“Non, she’s human.”
“Then how can they marry?” The boy’s voice went up at that. “You said…”
“They won’t be havin’ children.”
“Well, I guess that’s…I mean, he wouldn’t have had any if he’d stayed with me, either. I…” He stopped, shaking his head. “This is all so fantastic, Vash.”
“But you do believe me?”
“After what I’ve seen tonight? What do you think? Either I’m crazy…and my shrink says I’m only mildly maladjusted…or it must be true. Anyway, you don’t have to worry about me telling anyone,” Timothy added. “Who’d believe me?”
“Petit…Is it good ’tween us then?” Vashon asked anxiously. At present that was all he cared about.
“I’ve really got to think about this,” Timothy answered. “A lot of thinking.”
“Ah have t’ know ’fore Ah go,” Vashon persisted.
“Go?” Timothy looked startled. “Where?”
“Home, of course. Ah need t’ rest,” he reminded the boy.
“Vash, don’t go.” Dropping the candlestick holder, Timothy was off the couch, catching Vashon’s hands and squeezing them tightly. “Please, stay here tonight. I need to think about all this and I don’t want to be alone when I do it.” He looked into the Cajun’s eyes. “I need you, Vash.”
“All right, petit.” That was all the assurance Vashon wanted. “Ah’ll stay.”
Later, though, after they were in bed, Timothy was so quiet, Vashon became worried.
“Petit?” His hand brushed Timothy’s cheek. To his horror, he discovered the boy was crying silently. “Heah now…shhh…”
He gathered the small body into his arms.
“Oh, Vash, I was so afraid…not of you, but of that…creature…and now, knowing it was you…” Arms went around the Cajun’s neck, a damp cheek pressed against his chest. “Hold me, Vash. Promise me what you are will never come between us.”
“Ah promise, petit.” Vash snuggled Timothy against him, pulling up the sheet.
“I love you, Vash…” There was no other sound as the boy slid into sleep, showing exactly how much he trusted the man who’d revealed himself to be something he should fear.
Vashon, however, wondered if Timothy would still feel so safe when he learned everything about the aventurieri.