Shadows on the Soul
Gabriel glided into the Four Seasons hotel bar in a cloud of glamour. He smiled to imagine what the patrons would think if they caught a glimpse of his studded motorcycle boots and black leather. But tonight, as every night, he'd declined to dress for dinner.
He passed by a table where an amorous couple huddled close together, the besotted male oblivious to Gabriel's passing. The woman's eyebrows drew together and she shivered, sensing the passage of a dangerous predator even if she couldn't see him. He lingered, his nostrils flaring as he scented the air, but neither of them tempted him.
He'd held off feeding for the three days he'd been in Philadelphia , wanting to make a statement with his very first kill in his dear father's territory. The woman shivered again, and Gabriel realized she felt the chill of his rage. He reeled himself back in. For his revenge against the man who'd sired him and then tried to kill him, he would need to leash his rage and act with calculated precision. Which was why his first victim had to be perfect.
He could never defeat Eli in a fight. His father had been an old and powerful vampire when Gabriel was born, and Gabriel would reach his five hundredth birthday this Christmas. But after careful thought, he'd realized he had the perfect weapon with which to torture the old man for as long as it pleased him.
Table after table he passed, considering, then discarding, one mortal after another. Until he approached a woman who sat alone at a table for two. His nostrils stung as he picked up a familiar scent, acrid and yet cloyingly sweet all at once. He paused to focus his full attention on her.
He guessed her age at around thirty, and her appearance screamed Corporate America. An expensive pin-striped pants suit clung to her curves--no doubt tailored, because off-the-rack clothes never looked so perfect. Hair of varying shades of blonde framed her face in a rather severe pageboy, and her eyes held a look of intense concentration as she tapped away at her BlackBerry. A vodka martini sat neglected on the table before her.
Gabriel smiled. Now here was perfection. Female, pretty, with all the trappings of wealth and respectability. No doubt she was a pillar of her community. And yet, there was that scent, fighting its way through her expensive perfume . . .
He dropped his glamour enough to allow the woman to see him, then pulled up a chair uninvited.
She was so intent on her work that for a full sixty seconds, she didn't notice him. He might have felt insulted if he were inclined to vanity. In his long-ago youth, his appearance had been quite pleasing to the ladies. But that was before Eli's sword had drawn the ugly scar across his cheek. He supposed he should be thankful the old man had lost his nerve at the last moment, or the sword would have sliced clean through his neck instead of slashing almost harmlessly across his face. But he wasn't thankful, and despite the fact that vampires weren't supposed to scar, the scar remained two centuries later, an ever-present reminder of his father's love.
When she finally noticed him, the woman started, her hazel eyes growing wide as she put the BlackBerry down. She opened her mouth, no doubt to tell him he wasn't welcome at her table, but he reached out to her with his glamour and she froze in place with that startled look still on her face.
Gabriel smiled at her, but it wasn't a warm smile. Even through the glamour, she sensed the menace in that smile, for a hint of fear blended with her other scents. He rested an elbow on the table and leaned toward her.
"What is your name, pretty one?" he asked.
She blinked and swallowed hard. "M-margaret. Margaret McCall." The scent of fear sharpened as his glamour dragged the answer from her lips against her will.
He let his eyes drift from her face to her throat, where her pulse visibly drummed. His fangs descended, and he made no attempt to hide them. Margaret's face went pale, the pulse in her throat now leaping wildly. He could hear the beat of her racing heart as primal instincts warned her she was staring death in the face.
"You've been a very naughty girl, haven't you Margaret?" he asked, tonguing one of the fangs.
"I-I don't know what you mean," she stammered.
He sensed her trying to look away, trying to break the hold of his glamour, but it was a futile effort. He breathed deep the scent of her, the fear and the perfume and the . . . other. The scent he liked to think of as corruption.
"I'm quite sure you do," he said. He pushed back his chair, then stood over her and offered his elbow like a gentleman. "Come along, my dear. Let's have a private little chat, shall we?"
A tiny whimper of fear escaped her throat, but she managed no more sound as his glamour forced her to her feet, forced her to take his elbow and allow him to lead her away from the illusory safety of the public bar.
"I'm going to kill you," he said conversationally as he guided her past the tables, then finally out the front door of the hotel. Fear rolled off her in waves, and he fought an unsavory urge to prolong it, to use that fear like a torturer's hot iron, not for any purpose but that it pleased him.
She was far from an innocent, but she was still a mortal woman, and her crimes, whatever they were, could not compare to those of vampires, of Killers. Like himself. No, he felt no special urge to be merciful to her, but he would not torment her more than necessary. The most vicious of his torments were reserved for Killers, and there was only one of those--other than himself--in all of Philadelphia.
"Please--" the woman started, but he stopped her voice with a shake of his head.
"I cannot be bargained with. Nor can I be swayed to mercy." They were nearing a dark alley, the kind of place a woman like her was taught never to set foot in at night. "The only question is how much you will suffer as you die."
Her terror was a palpable force as they stepped into the alley to find it deserted. He pushed her up against a wall in a pool of shadow, grabbing her chin and forcing her head up so that she met his eyes.
"Confess to me the worst sin you have ever committed, and your death will be quick and painless. Lie to me, or refuse to tell me, and I will make it last, and you will feel every second of it."
Her heart galloped, and twin tears leaked from her eyes. Tremors shook her entire body. He watched the conflict that raged behind her eyes, saw her desperate desire to deny any wrongdoing. But no mortal could look into his eyes and doubt he meant what he said.
"I killed my daughter," she whispered, trying to look away but failing.
"Go on," he urged when it seemed that was all she would say. "Tell me all of it." His lips twisted into a sneer. "They say confession is good for the soul."
She swallowed hard. "I found out my husband was having an affair. He used to beat us both. I'd called the police on him once, so it was on record.
"I . . . I beat my daughter to death and said he did it. I didn't mean to kill her!" Her eyes pleaded for Gabriel to believe her.
He curled his lips away from his fangs. "You just meant to knock her around a little and then call the police on your husband?"
She nodded frantically. "Yes, yes, that's all--"
"You think that absolves you of sin?"
She didn't answer. He wasn't sure if it was fear or guilt that had stopped her tongue. Maybe both. He thought he sensed a shadow of misery on her soul, but perhaps he was projecting. If her crime made her miserable, then he was granting her mercy by killing her. He smiled to himself. Mercy, justice, and revenge all wrapped up in one pretty package.
The woman's fear spiked, but he reached out with his glamour and stilled the clamoring of her mind. Her eyes glazed, her jaw slackened, and her pulse slowed its frantic rush. At his mental urging, she turned her head to the side and exposed her throat. He brushed her hair out of the way, then lowered his head to just above her skin, breathing in deeply, drawing her bouquet of scents into his lungs.
Then, he sank his fangs into her flesh, pulling them out with a slashing motion until blood gushed from the wound. He sealed his mouth over the flow and drank deeply.
Five hundred years of kills hadn't diminished the flood of sensation that always overwhelmed him at the first taste. His head filled with power as his soul soared with giddy elation and his body hardened.
Then, he saw the memory he'd drawn to the surface, saw Margaret McCall in one of her pretty designer suits, wielding a frying pan like a weapon. Her eyes glowed with madness, and her fury slammed into him until the memory was as real as his own . . .
She'd believed every lie Frank had told her. Believed the anger management classes had his rage--and his fists--under control. Believed he'd been working late, even though she knew better, even though she'd caught him with that slut just last year.
She wanted to kill him, wanted to beat him as he'd beat her, only she wouldn't stop. She wanted to see his head cave in under the weight of her blows. But he wasn't here, would probably never come back now that she'd caught him in his lies yet again.
She banged the frying pan against the counter, desperate for an outlet for her rage. The crash brought her six-year-old daughter running. And the rage crystallized within her, no longer a roaring, out-of-control blaze, but a cold, hard core of ice.
Gabriel wrenched his mind away, putting distance between them as that first rush of power cooled, became manageable. So much anger in her. Anger that had lived inside her all her life, that she'd never allowed herself to vent. Then one day, the anger had burst her skin and she'd welcomed it, embraced it, done things she'd always wanted to do but never dared.
Her blood flowed down his throat, her body now slack, only the press of his body against hers keeping her upright. He drank it all in, her blood, her life-force, her soul. Drank until her essence had filled all the empty spaces inside him and all that was left of her was a hollow husk.
He sucked the last swallow of blood from her throat, then stepped back and allowed her body to crumple to the ground. Life and energy flowed through his veins, tingled in his extremities. His breath came short and quick, and his heart beat with renewed vigor.
He looked down at the dead woman and felt nothing but contempt for her. She thought herself a helpless victim of her own rage.
Gabriel snorted. She had no idea what true rage was. But he knew. It was rage that animated his body, that kept him alive and functioning from day to day. If he could control a rage so monstrous it felt like a separate living being within his body, then she certainly should have been able to control it. Instead, she'd taken it out on a six-year-old child and then absolved herself of the crime because life had treated her unfairly.
Gabriel bared his fangs in a snarl, feeling soiled by the woman's blood.
His kills were always like this. Unbridled euphoria when first he sank his fangs, then rampant disgust when his victim lay dead. And at these moments, when the kill was freshly finished, he wished he could be like other Killers. No one else he knew seemed to absorb so much of their victims. No one else felt and saw any of their victims' lives during the kill. From what he gathered, all they felt was the euphoria, the joy of the kill, each one identical--not individual human beings, with unique personalities. Just food.
Fury coursed through his veins, this time his own, not his victim's. He leaned his hands against the wall and closed his eyes, holding it in.
This was all Eli's fault! Eli had known when he'd bedded Gabriel's mother that it was possible for vampires to have children. True, he hadn't thought Camille old enough to have regained her fertility, but he could have been more cautious.
Because of Eli's carelessness, Gabriel had never been human, was doomed always to be different from everyone around him. And then, after three hundred years of tolerating his Killer of a son, Eli had found God--or whatever the hell it was that happened to him--and decided all Killers must die.
Gabriel had made his life over as he took his place at his mother's side, the two of them ruling their adopted home of Baltimore for two centuries. Then Camille had shown that her own affections were as shallow as Eli's. Gabriel had put her in her place, but it was Eli who was the center of it all, who was the author of Gabriel's fate.
He knelt beside the dead woman and pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket. On it, he'd written a short but sweet note to his dear Da. He used a safety pin to attach the note to the woman's suit jacket. Then, he hauled her over his shoulder and carried her through the city streets, his glamour making them invisible to everyone they passed.
Jezebel blinked, and found herself lying on her back on the floor, staring up at a cream-colored ceiling. For an instant, she had no idea where she was, what had happened, why she was lying down. Then a familiar face hovered over her, looking down at her with concern.
"Are you all right?" Eli asked.
She blinked again, but wasn't sure how to answer the question. She felt . . . strange. And she still couldn't remember how she'd ended up on the floor.
"What happened?" she asked.
A furrow appeared between Eli's brows. "I was hoping you could tell me. One moment, you were sitting in that chair," he said, motioning, "the next moment, you bolted to your feet, took one step, then collapsed."
She shivered, suddenly cold. Intellectually, she realized Eli didn't know everything. But in the three months she'd been living under his care, she'd come to see him as the font of all knowledge. She'd never persuaded him to tell her how long he'd been vampire, but she knew it was a long, long time. He'd helped her through every step of her transition, always knowing just what she needed before she even guessed at it. He even looked the part of the wise old man, with his lined face, gray hair, and penetrating eyes.
If he didn't know what happened to her . . .
Eli put a hand gently under her shoulder. "Can you sit up if I help?"
There was only one way to find out.
She cautiously pushed herself up onto her elbows, Eli's hand hovering just short of touching her. She smothered a smile. He was way too knowing, understanding without having to be told that she'd prefer to sit up without his help if she could. Three months he'd known her, and already he understood her so much better than her family ever had.
Her throat tightened on the thought, and she shoved it viciously away. As far as she was concerned, her family was dead, her past buried. She'd started a new life when she'd been transformed, and she was determined to embrace it.
Her head swam a moment, then she steadied. Closing her eyes, taking in a deep breath, she tried to remember what had happened to her.
Her mind seemed reluctant to give up the memory, but she forced it to the surface. And her heart leapt into her throat.
She remembered fangs piercing a fragile throat. She remembered a rush of pleasure, like nothing she'd ever felt before. The taste of blood hot on her tongue, a woman's life draining away. And she remembered a bottomless pit of rage.
Jez put a hand to her throat and swallowed hard, fighting to keep the sudden surge of panic from showing on her face. That hadn't been her memory. She'd never bitten anyone, had only drunk lamb's blood, and that only when it was mixed with milk to make the task of feeding a nauseating necessity rather than a pleasure.
"Are you all right?" Eli asked again.
She nodded, not trusting her voice.
Gabriel. It had to be. He'd told her after he'd transformed her that their bond with each other might be different from the usual bond between a master and his fledgling. But he'd sent her away, sent her to Eli, only a month after she'd died and been reborn.
"I will give you time to adjust to the changes in your body and your mind," he'd said to her, looking her over with a proprietary eye. "And I will give you time to work your way into Eli's good graces. Then, when I am ready, I shall come to Philadelphia and call on you."
Gabriel scared the shit out of her, but she'd managed to look him in the eye and ask, "And what happens then?"
He'd smiled, an expression that didn't reach his chilly, gray-green eyes. "Then you will fulfill your half of our bargain."
She'd wanted to press for more information, but the look in those eyes persuaded her to hold her tongue.
In the months she'd lived in Philly, she'd tried her best not to think about her bargain with her maker. He'd transformed her into a vampire to save her life, after she'd been gang-raped and fed on repeatedly by a flock of fledgling Killers. The memory of that horrendous trauma might have driven her mad, but Gabriel had done something to her memory, something to blunt the force of it. She knew what had happened to her, but thinking about it provoked no emotional response whatsoever. It was as if it had happened to someone else.
For protection from that memory, she'd have pledged her very soul. Perhaps she had.
"I think I'd like to go lie down for a while," she said, hoping Eli would just let her go home and be alone with her thoughts.
But having Eli understand her so well was a double-edged sword. He met her eyes, and she saw a hint of anger in his gaze, though his voice when he spoke was soft and gentle.
"You're hiding something from me, Jezebel."
She raised her chin a notch. Eli was a living, breathing lie detector, at least where she was concerned, so she didn't bother to lie. "I never promised you full disclosure. You said I could start here with a clean slate, and I intend to hold you to that."
He fixed her with that penetrating stare of his, his eyes eerily like Gabriel's. It took all her willpower not to look away like a guilty child.
Finally, he shrugged and offered her a hand up. She didn't think she was in any danger of collapsing again, but she let him help her anyway. He didn't let go immediately.
"When you're ready to talk to me, I'm ready to listen," he said.
Inwardly, she cringed. He'd been nothing but kind to her since the moment she'd met him. Gabriel had painted him as some kind of sanctimonious, holier-than-thou power-monger, and she'd come to Philadelphia fully prepared to hate him and to enjoy whatever revenge Gabriel planned. It hadn't taken her long at all to see how distorted Gabriel's view was.
"Thanks, Eli," she said. Her voice was a bare whisper. She was afraid it would shake if she spoke out loud. She knew now she wouldn't enjoy Gabriel's revenge, and that she'd loathe whatever part she had to play in it. But she'd made a promise to her maker. He'd held up his end, and she'd be damned if she'd renege on hers.
But then, if she believed her family, she'd been damned from the moment she was conceived, so what did one more sin matter?
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