“Well, well, if it isn’t Michel du Motier’s son. Here in the colonies. Apparently I must have mislaid my Paris newspaper. I am certain your departure was news,” Lucien LaCroix remarked quite casually. “And such a foolish thing to do! To trade a life such as yours – one of pleasure and excess – for a bed of straw, hard tack and filthy water. All to support a fledgling nation that has chosen to roost too close to the edge and is doomed to fall and die.”
The tall man with white hair in the British general’s coat sat behind an ornate Chippendale desk with his black booted feet resting on its brilliantly polished top. His long fingers were steepled beneath his chin. Lafayette stood facing him. He had not been bound. There was no guard in the room or without. He was, in fact, quite free. Even the door to the room stood open behind him, beckoning – as if the man before him had no fear that he would run.
But then LaCroix claimed to know his father and so, knew him as well.
The soldiers had marched him up the stair and then placed him in a small room adjoining the office for nearly half an hour before he was to General LaCroix’s presence. Once in the cloistered space he had quickly donned the crucifix Elizabeth had pressed in his hand. The golden relic rested now against his heart, its physical presence – and the greater Presence it represented – warming and strengthening him.
LaCroix waited and when he did not reply, lowered his feet to the floor and leaned forward over the desk. “How is your mother?” he asked. “Julie? I think that was her name. Golden-red hair if I remember right. And an exquisitely long neck.” He waited and when Lafayette still refused to speak, added with menace. “You will find, Gilbert, that I grow cross quite easily. I would suggest you sit down,” LaCroix indicated the wooden chair that rested before the desk with a wave of his hand, “and relax. Tell me about yourself. Otherwise, annoyance may become anger. And if it does, it will not be you who pays, but that lovely rosy-cheeked child waiting in the cell below. Elizabeth, wasn’t it?”
Lafayette stiffened as he met the man’s predatory stare and saw in LaCroix’s ice-blue eyes the reality of the threat. Yielding to that reality, he rounded the chair quickly and sat in it. “She is dead,” he answered woodenly.
“Ah! A pity. Such a lovely thing too.”
“How do you know her?”
“A question!” LaCroix clapped his hands together as he settled back in the chair. “Good. Good. Now we can get some where. How did Julie die?”
“She died. That is all.”
LaCroix pursed his lips and shook his head. “Temper, temper, Gilbert. I don’t remember your father being such a bore.”
Lafayette scowled. He hated games, but this was one he must play – for Elizabeth’s sake. “I don’t remember my father,” he replied, his jaw tight.
LaCroix appeared to think, as if tallying the years. “That’s right,” he breathed, “you were an unweaned babe in the cradle the last time I saw you covered in spittle and sour milk….” The man’s pale eyes narrowed. “That was the night Janette and Nicholas and I paid your grandmother’s home a visit.”
“That was almost twenty years ago. It could not have been you.”
“Is that all? My, how time – among other things – flies.” LaCroix’s grin was evil. “If it had not been for Nicholas’ interference your mother would have died that night. You as well. But then, perhaps I should be grateful to him – what fun I would have missed if I had robbed myself of the opportunity to destroy you, and all you stand for, now.”
In his mind’s eye they were one and the same – the evil shadow, growling, bent over his mother’s slender form – and this man.
But how could that be?
“You can be no more than forty,” Lafayette protested. “The man who came to the manor was forty then, if not more.”
General LaCroix’s white eyebrows peaked. “An insult! My, you are fun! I assure you, I haven’t aged a day in seventeen hundred years.”
“Seventeen hundred….” Lafayette’s brow wrinkled with puzzlement as he struggled to reconcile the man’s words to his own present and past reality. “Who are you, LaCroix? Who are you really?”
“Better ask, who am I not?” LaCroix laughed. He rose from his seat and moved to the front of the desk and rested there on one hip. “I am not a British general. I am not even in the military, though I have worn a thousand uniforms for a hundred different kings. I am not forty years, but seventeen centuries old. And,” he leaned in close and whispered near his ear, “I am not human.”
Evil emanated from the man. It exuded from his pores. It dripped off LaCroix’s tongue and welled in pools in his ice cold stare. Lafayette resisted the urge to touch the crucifix that lay concealed beneath his shirt, but felt its quiet assurance against the rhythm of his rapidly beating heart.
LaCroix drew a deep breath of air in through his nose and let it out with a sigh. “An enjoyable bouquet – eminently pleasurable - the scent of fear. Nectar of the gods. You are wise to fear me, boy.”
“I do not fear you,” Lafayette answered quietly. “Nor do I fear death.”
“Well, why should you? Death, after all, is just the beginning of things. But you should fear me, Gilbert du Motier. I can make of your life a living death. I can drain your body to within an inch of life’s end and make you my creature. I can force you to stand by impotent while the lifeblood of your friends pours out on the ground before you. I can turn you on your precious Rebellion and make you the darling of King George. Oh, no, you do not need fear death – it is living you should fear.”
Lafayette tried but could not keep himself from trembling. The baleful nature of the creature who questioned him was withering. LaCroix’s mere presence wore away at his strength and resolve and threatened to take him back to that place where he had been when Daniel Boggs had found him in the woods, his neck torn and bleeding – lost, alone and defeated.
“Why do you hate me so?” Lafayette asked, his voice a ragged whisper.
“It is not you I hate, dear Gilbert, but the one that sired you,” La Croix snapped. “Michel came between me and my own and I will not have that! I warned Nicholas when he prevented me from taking your mother that there would be a price to pay. That price was his dear friend Michel du Motier.”
“My father died in battle on the field at Minden.”
“Did he now?” LaCroix scoffed. “Oh. Were you there? I must have missed seeing you for all the smoke.”
“And you mean to say you were? Why would I believe such a thing?”
“Believe it. I was with the Prussians.” LaCroix drew closer and held his hand before his face. “With this I drove the bayonet home through your father’s heart and pinned him to grass like the insignificant insect he was. His death was long and lingering. His pain great. His defeat and humiliation total and…utterly pleasurable.”
Lafayette was breathing hard. Tears of unspoken grief carried for two decades welled in his eyes. “Mon Dieu…” he whispered.
“My God! Your god is a pale puny thing born of this mortal race and nothing compared to me! He did not save your father, and he will not save you. God does not care. His voice is silent when you pray your pitiful prayers.” LaCroix caught him by the collar and pulled him to his feet and forced him to meet his infernal stare. The general’s eyes were no longer blue but had become a sickly sallow yellow, and his voice echoed hollowly, thick and throaty as the ravenous snarl of a wolf. “Pray to me! Beg me to spare your miserable life! I am the only God you have now!”
“Never!” Lafayette swore. “Never!”
“Then it is the end of the Marquis de La Fayette that was, and the beginning of the one to be. I will turn you into my puppet and glory as your precious Cause falls to dust. Just think, who will turn you away when you, the beloved ‘boy’ appear at their door? Will Green? Or Wayne….” LaCroix’s voice fell to a whisper.
With a power beyond that which was human, LaCroix placed a hand to the side of his head and bent it sideways, exposing his bandaged throat. He snatched the soiled linen away, revealing the half-healed wound, and with an inhuman growl bared sharp ivory teeth whetted keen as knife blades. Lafayette closed his eyes and committed his soul to his God, praying that forgiveness would be found in Heaven for his sin of being too weak to resist.
Then, just as his skin felt the impression of the vampire’s bite the damned creature howled in anger and reared back. Lafayette lost his balance and fell to the floor. When he looked up he saw LaCroix reeling back. The cursed creature’s lips were bleeding. On them was a charred impression of the cross.
“Henry, please,” Jeremy begged. “You must allow me to pass.”
Henry Abington shook his head. “No. You are not well enough. As your physician and friend, I cannot in good conscience allow you to travel. No.”
“But Lafayette. We must help him!” Jeremy frowned, slightly dizzy and completely exasperated. “He is in deadly peril!”
“And how will you getting yourself killed aid the general or prevent this danger?” Henry crossed his arms. He had planted his sizeable frame between Jeremy and the barn door. “No!”
“Henry. You don’t understand….”
“Then make me.”
Jeremy frowned. If he tried to explain things to Henry the apothecary would add madness to his ailments and most likely sedate him. “I cannot. You must trust me.”
“Trust you?” Henry’s mouth quirked with a wry smile. “Would you trust him, Isak?”
The black man stood behind them, guarding the barn’s rear exit. “I would trust Jeremy to put himself in danger.”
“Precisely!” Henry crowed.
“Henry, you are not yourself. Nor you, Isak,” he threw over his shoulder. “You are under the influence.”
“Of good sound reason! Aye, I will admit that.” Henry shook his head emphatically. “Jeremy, go back to your bed.”
Jeremy hung his head in defeat. “All right,” he said quietly. “I had to try. Actually,” he stumbled forward a step, “I am feeling rather disoriented….”
“See? I told you.” Henry moved to catch and steady him. “While the knife slipped cleanly through the ribs without causing any internal damage, the blood loss was considerable. You should rest and remain off your feet for some time – ”
Jeremy hated to do it – and knew he would have to pay penance in church for some time to come – but he did it anyway. He shifted just as Henry reached for him and ducked. His friend couldn’t control his forward momentum and tumbled over him, falling in a heap on the floor –
Creating a barrier between him and Isak, who was barreling forward like a bull on the run.
Jeremy drew a breath against the pain that stabbed him as he righted himself, and bolted out the door into the night. He wouldn’t have to get far – just to the tree line beyond and to the blessed shadows that pooled beneath which would shield and hide him. Then he would make his way to Chester – somehow – and go to the town hall and….
And do what? Defeat a vampire single-handed?
Just exactly how did one do that?
He could hear Henry and Isak following close behind him, calling his name and cursing him for his bull-headedness. He knew there would be no end to their pursuit – Nicholas Knighton’s voice would be in their ear, urging them on, pressing them forward until they wore themselves out. The only thing he could do was outwait them.
And yet, with each passing minute Jeremy knew Lafayette drew closer to death.
Gaining the safety of the trees was a trade-off. It meant he lost the light of the moon. Stumbling blindly he continued, heading as best he could for the town. Henry and Isak’s voices slowly grew more distant, as if they had chosen to follow the wrong trail. The fact that they had brought a smile to Jeremy’s lips. Nicholas’ hypnotic grip compelled the pair to follow his orders, but it also dulled their senses. Isak would never have lost track of him if he had been in control.
Jeremy paused, gripping his wounded side and panting hard. He lifted his head and looked up for a break in the trees, hoping to get his bearings. The moon was high. It could be no more than two or three in the morning. There were many hours left to the night.
What, he wondered as he began to run, would the light of dawning morning bring?
“This is where I left him. I swear it!” Janette pouted as she crossed her arms and began to tap the toe of one expensive silk slipper in the grass. “Can I help it if your son will not stay put!”
Samuel Larkin was kneeling in the grass. He raised a hand and stared at his fingers.
They were black.
“So much blood,” he breathed as he looked up at her. “Is it Jeremy’s?”
“How would I know? Do you think I have tasted it before?”
“Dear God! Jean, do you drink men’s blood?”
Janette watched him pale. Even though Samuel Larkin had connected her with the deaths in England all those years ago, it still had not dawned on him just what she was. The possibility of the walking dead was outside of his ken. Ignoring his question, she turned her back on the sight of so much wasted food and stared at the moon which danced high above the clouds. “Perhaps we should return to Chester. Perhaps your son has returned home.”
Janette rolled her eyes and let out a deep sigh. “Now what?”
Samuel’s voice trembled. “Did you kill him? Did you kill my boy?”
She spun to face him. Genuinely wounded by the accusation. “No. Jeremy is your son. I could not do that to you.”
Janette stared at Samuel Larkin, remembering the strong, handsome young man she had once loved and left behind. Perhaps it would have been kinder to have taken the boy’s life. Allowed to live, this is what Jeremy would become – a shell of his once splendid self, withered with age, an old man cursed with blue-veined skin and thinning hair. “Truly.” Janette hesitated and then added with a scowl. “If I could swear on the Bible, I would. But you would not want me to do that. It would probably burst into flame at my touch.”
“Who…what are you, Jean?” Samuel asked. “How can you still be young? You have not aged a day since you left.”
She smiled as she preened, touching her luxuriant brown hair which was soft and supple as it had been centuries before. “And I never will.”
“Have you sold your soul then? Is Lucifer your master?”
“LaCroix is my master,” she answered. “And Lucifer would be wise to never challenge him.”
Samuel Larkin shook his white head as he staggered to his feet. “Eternal damnation is a high price to pay for eternal youth, Jean.” His voice was tender and truly sorry for her. “Have you ever regretted your choice?”
A thousand lifetimes LaCroix had offered her. A chance to be a god. Who could regret that? Janette looked at him and thought of the other life she might have led – of years spent in comfort by Samuel’s side, of days spent walking together beneath the sun, of children – Jeremy might have been hers – and of growing old while holding the hand of the one you loved.
“No,” Janette answered softly. “I have never regretted it.”
It was a good thing that lying came naturally to their kind.
“We might as well return. There is nothing here,” he said as he turned away from her. “Nothing but an empty field and too much blood.”
“Samuel, I did not mean – ”
A sudden noise silenced her. Her companion turned and looked at her, his eyes wide. Someone was plunging clumsily through the trees, making enough noise to wake those who were truly dead.
“What is that?” he asked.
Janette closed her eyes and reached out with her vampiric senses. It was a man. His tall frame pulsed with the fire of his blood, but it was only a shadow of what it should have been. Seconds before she could put a name to him, the wounded man broke through the trees and fell, literally, at his father’s feet.
“Jeremy!” Samuel Larkin exclaimed.
Lafayette reared back as the snarling creature reached out and took him by the arm. “You will remove that vile thing!” LaCroix snarled as he averted his eyes from the golden body of Christ. “I command you!”
With trembling fingers Lafayette gripped the crucifix and pulled the chain, snapping the clasp. Then he held the precious relic before him and began to back out of the room.
“No!” he declared. “You have no power over me.”
“I have all the power! Do you think the imitation of your god’s puny body can stop me? I have walked in churches and killed priests in its shadow!”
“Then kill me now. As you did my father.”
LaCroix was breathing hard. He ran his tongue over his lips and grinned wickedly as he tasted his own blood. “No. I mean to make an object lesson out of you for poor remorseful Nicholas. I will not kill you – but neither will I let you go. You will be the instrument by which I crush this puny Rebellion and the upstart nation that dares to throw off the hand of a loving parent. I will use you. I will make you betray them.
“I will destroy their soul!”
“I would die first – by my own hand if necessary,” Lafayette declared as he reached the open door.
LaCroix started after him. But then he seemed to think better of it. Instead of pursuing him, or rushing across the room in a rage, he retook his seat at the desk and began to shift papers. “Go ahead. Run,” he said, not looking at him. “You will not get far.”
The vampire’s change of heart puzzled him. “You will not follow me?” Lafayette asked.
“Oh, I didn’t say that.” LaCroix glanced at the timepiece on the mantel. “But I can be generous. I will give you a five minutes head start.”
LaCroix placed his hand son the stack of papers and rose to his feet. “Because, dear boy, after nearly two centuries of existence the chase is the only thrill that remains. Now, go. Run!” The vampire laughed and the sound of his merciless joy chilled Gilbert du Motier’s soul. “Run!”
He did not hesitate but did as he was told. Gripping the crucifix tightly Lafayette bolted into the empty hall and ran as fast as he could through the building, out the doors and into the tenebrous night. At the end of the street he paused to catch his breath before heading into the shadows beside the bridge. As he hesitated, breathing deeply, a sound caused him to pivot. For a second the lean figure of a man appeared silhouetted in the lamp light. Then he was gone.
Seconds later a hand was clamped over his mouth and he was drawn into the darkness.
“I need you to remain silent,” a soft voice said. “Will you do this?”
“Do not cry out. There is no time to explain.”
As the hand came away, he asked, “Who are you?”
The man who held him shifted so the lamplight struck his boyish face. He was blond and dressed as a gentleman. At his throat a ruby stick-pin glittered.
“A friend,” Nicholas Knighton said.
Then he pushed off of the ground and bore Gilbert du Motier into the air.