Home > Vampires > The Darkest Heart (Sonja Blue #5)

The Darkest Heart (Sonja Blue #5)
Author:Nancy A. Collins

The Darkest Heart (Sonja Blue #5) by Nancy A. Collins

 

 

 

Part One

 

Prologue

 

New Orleans:

 

Ten years ago

 

Oh I'll be a good boy,

 

Please make me well,

 

I'll promise you anything,

 

Get me out of this hell.

 

Cold Turkey,

 

- John Lennon

 

She had to give the dead boy credit; he had the trick of appearing human nailed down tight. He'd learned just what gestures and inflections to use in his conversation to hide the fact that his surface gloss and glitz wasn't there merely to disguise basic shallowness, but an utter lack of humanity.

 

She'd seen enough of the kind of humans he imitated: pallid, self-important intellectuals who prided themselves on their sophistication and knowledge of "hip" art, sharpening their wit at the expense of others. Like the vampiric mimic in their midst, they produced nothing while draining the vitality from those around them. The only difference was that the vampire was more honest about it.

 

Sonja worked her way to the bar, careful to keep herself shielded from the dead boy's view, both physically and psychically. It wouldn't do for her quarry to catch scent of her just yet. She could hear the vampire's nasal intonations as it held forth on the demerits of various artists.

 

"Frankly, I consider his use of photo-montage to be inexcusably banal. If I wanted to look at photographs, I'd go to Olan Mills!"

 

She wondered where the vampire had overheard - or stolen - that particular drollery. A dead boy of his wattage didn't come up with witty remarks spontaneously. When you have to spend conscious energy remembering to breathe and blink, there is no such thing as top-of-your-head snappy patter. It was all protective coloration, right down to the last double entendre and Monty Python impersonation.

 

It would be another decade or two before this vampire with the stainless steel ankh dangling from one earlobe and the crystal embedded in his left nostril, could divert his energies to something besides the full- time task of insuring his continuance. Not that the dead boy had much of a future in the predator business.

 

She waved down the bartender and ordered a beer. As she awaited its arrival, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror backing the bar. To the casual observer she looked to be no more than twenty-five.

 

Tricked out in a battered leather jacket, with a stained Circle Jerks T-shirt, patched jeans, mirrored sunglasses, and dark hair twisted into a tortured cockatoo's crest, she looked like just another college-age gothic chick checking out the scene. No one would ever guess she was actually forty years old.

 

She sucked the cold suds down, participating in her own form of protective coloration. She could drink a case or three of the stuff with the only effect being she'd piss like a fire hose. Beer didn't do it for her anymore. Neither did hard liquor. Or cocaine. Or heroin. Or crack. She had tried them all, in dosages that would have put the entire US Olympic Team in the morgue, but no luck. There was only one drug that plunked her magic twanger. Only one thing that could get her off.

 

And that drug was blood.

 

Yeah, the dead boy was good enough he could have fooled another vampire. Could have. But didn't.

 

She eyed her prey. She doubted she'd have any trouble taking the sucker down. She rarely did, these days.

 

Least not the lesser undead that lacked major psionic muscle. Sure, they had enough mesmeric ability to gull the humans in their vicinity, but little else. Compared to her own psychic abilities, the art-fag vampire was packing a peashooter. Still, it wasn't smart to get too cocky. Lord Morgan had dismissed her in just such a high-handed manner, and now he was missing half his face.

 

She shifted her vision from the human to the Pretender spectrum, studying the vampire's true appearance.

 

She wondered if the black-garbed art aficionados clustered about their mandarin, their heads bobbing like puppets, would still consider his pronouncements worthy if they knew his skin was the color and texture of rotten sailcloth, or that his lips were black and shriveled, revealing oversized fangs set in a perpetual death's-head grimace. No doubt they'd drop their little plastic cups of cheap Chablis and back away in horror, their surface glaze of urbanite sophistication and studied ennui replaced by honest, good, old- fashioned monkey-brain terror.

 

Humans need masks in order to live their day-to-day lives, even amongst their own kind. Little did they know that their dependence on artifice and pretense provided the perfect hiding place for a raft of predators, such as the vampire pretending to be an art-fag. Predators like her.

 

Sonja tightened her grip on the switchblade in the pocket of her leather jacket.

 

"Uh, excuse me?"

 

She jerked around a little too fast, startling the young man at her elbow. She was so focused on her prey she had been unaware of his approaching her. Sloppy. Really sloppy.

 

"Yeah, what is it?"

 

The young man blinked, taken aback by the brusqueness of her tone. "I, uh, was wondering if I might, uh, buy you a drink?"

 

She automatically scanned him for signs of Pretender taint, but he came up clean. One hundred percent USDA Human. He was taller than her by a couple of inches, his blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. There were three rings in his right ear and one in his left nostril. Despite the metalwork festooning his nose, he was quite handsome.

 

Sonja found herself at a loss for words. She was not used to being approached by normals. She tended to generate a low-level psychic energy that most humans found unnerving, if not actively antagonistic. In layman's terms, she tended to either scare people away or piss them off.

 

"I - I - " She shot her prey a glance out of the comer of her eye. Shit! The bastard was starting to make his move, hustling an entranced human in the direction of the back door.

 

"I realize this is going to sound like a really dumb, cheap come-on," the young man with the nose ring said, giving her an embarrassed smile. "But I saw you from across the room - and I just had to meet you. Please let me buy you a drink."

 

"I, uh, I - "

 

The vampire had his prey almost out the door, smiling widely as he continued to discourse on modern art.

 

"There's something I have to take care of - I'll be right back! I promise! Don't go away!" she blurted, and dashed off in pursuit of her target for the night.

 

She scanned the parking lot, checking for signs of the vampire's passage. She prayed she wasn't too late.

 

Once vamps isolated and seduced humans from the herd, they tended to move quickly. She knew that much from her own experience at the hands of Lord Morgan, the undead bastard responsible for her own transformation.

 

The vampire and his prey were sitting in the backseat of a silver BMW with heavily tinted windows; their blurred silhouettes moved like shadows reflected in an aquarium. There was no time to waste. She would have to risk being spotted.

 

The imitation art-fag looked genuinely surprised when her fist punched through the back window, sending tinted safety glass flying into the car. He hissed a challenge, exposing his fangs, as he whipped about to face her. His victim sat beside him, motionless as a mannequin, his eyes unfocused. The human's erect penis jutted from his open fly, vibrating like a recently struck tuning fork.

 

Sonja grabbed the vampire by the collar of his black silk shirt and pulled him, kicking and screaming, through the busted back windshield. The human didn't even blink.

 

"Let's get this over with, dead boy!" Sonja snapped as she hurled the snarling vampire onto the parking lot gravel. "I got a hot date waiting on me!"

 

The vampire launched himself at her, talons hooked and fangs extended. Sonja moved to meet the attack, flicking open the switchblade with a snap of her wrist. The silver blade sank into the vampire's exposed thorax, causing him to shriek in pain. The vampire collapsed around her fist like a punctured balloon, his body spasming as his system reacted to the silver's toxin.

 

Sonja knelt and swiftly removed the vampire's head from his shoulders. The body was already starting to putrefy by the time she located the BMW's keys. She unlocked the trunk and tossed the vampire's rapidly decomposing remains inside, making sure the keys were returned to his pants pocket.

 

She looked around, but there were no witnesses to be seen in the darkened lot. She moved around to the passenger side and opened the door, tugging the human out of the car.

 

He stood slumped against the rear bumper like a drunkard, his eyes swimming and his face slack. His penis dangled from his pants like a tattered party streamer.. Sonja took his chin between her thumb and forefinger and turned his head so that his eyes met hers.

 

"This never happened. You do not remember leaving the bar with anyone. Is that clear?"

 

"N-nothing h-happened," he stammered.

 

"Excellent! Now go back in the bar and have a good time. Oh, and put that thing away. You don't want to get busted for indecent exposure, do you?"

 

****

 

She was buzzing by the time she reentered the bar. She liked to think of it as her apres-combat high. The adrenaline from the battle was still sluicing around inside her; juicing her perceptions and making her feel as if she was made of lightning and spun glass. It wasn't as intense as the boost she got from blood, but it was still good. She scanned the bar for the young man with the nose ring.

 

Give it up, he's forgotten you and found another bimbo for the evening.

 

Sonja fought to keep from cringing at the sound of the Other's voice inside her head. She had managed to go almost all night without having to endure its commentary. A second later she was rewarded by the sight of him at the bar. After a quick spot-check for any telltale signs of blood or ichor that might still be clinging to her, she moved forward.

 

"You still interested in buying me that drink?"

 

The young man's smile was genuinely relieved. "You came back!"

 

"I said I'd be back, didn't I?"

 

"Yeah. You did." He smiled again and offered her his hand. "I guess I ought to introduce myself. I'm Judd."

 

Sonja took his hand and smiled without parting her lips. "Pleased to meet you, Judd. I'm Sonja."

 

"What the hell's going on here?"

 

Judd's smile faltered as his gaze fixed itself on something just over Sonja's right shoulder. She turned and found herself almost nose-to-nose with a young woman dressed in a skin-tight black sheath, fishnet stockings, and way too much make-up. The woman's psychosis covered her face like a caul, with pulsing indentations marking her eyes, nose and mouth.

 

Judd closed his eyes and sighed. "Kitty, look, it's over! Get a life of your own and let go of mine, alright?"

 

"Oh, is that how you see it? Funny, I remember you saying something different! Like how you'd always love me! Guess I was stupid to believe that, huh?"

 

Kitty's rage turned the caul covering her face an interesting shade of magenta. The way it swirled and pulsed reminded Sonja of a lava lamp.

 

"You're not getting away that easy, asshole! And who's this slut?" Kitty slapped the flat of her hand against Sonja's leather-clad shoulder in an attempt to push her away from Judd.

 

Sonja grabbed Kitty's wrist with the speed of a cobra strike. "Don't touch me."

 

"Let go of me, bitch!" Kitty snarled as she tried to pull herself free of Sonja's grasp. "I'll fucking touch you anytime I want! Just you stay away from my boyfriend, bitch!"

 

C'mon, snap the crazy bitch's arm off, purred the Other. She deserves it! Sonja closed her eyes, fighting the urge to break Kitty's wrist in front of Judd.

 

"I said let go!" Kitty shrieked as she tried to rake Sonja's face with her free hand. When Sonja snared that wrist as well, Kitty was forced to look directly into her face. Suddenly the other woman stopped struggling and the blood-red rage that suffused the caul was replaced by a sunburst of yellow fear.

 

Sonja knew the other woman was seeing her - truly seeing her - for what she was. Only three kinds of human could perceive the Real World: psychics, poets and lunatics. And Kitty definitely qualified for the last category.

 

Sonja released the girl, but kept her gaze fixed on her. Kitty massaged her wrists, opened her mouth as if to say something, then turned and hurried away, nearly tripping over her high heels as she fled.

 

Judd's cheeks were red with embarrassment. "Man, I'm so sorry you had to deal with that. But it's not what you think. . Kitty and I lived together for a few months over a year ago, but she was incredibly jealous. It got to the point where I couldn't take any more, so I moved out. She's been dogging my tracks ever since. She scared off the last two women I was interested in."

 

Sonja shrugged. "I don't scare easy."

 

****

 

He wasn't afraid of her. Nor did she detect the self-destructive tendencies that usually attracted human men to her kind. Judd was not a tranced moth drawn to her dark flame, nor was he a closet renfield in search of a master. He was simply a good-natured young man who found her physically attractive. The novelty of his normalcy intrigued her.

 

He bought her several drinks, all of which she downed without effect. But she did feel giddy, almost lightheaded, while in his company. To be mistaken for a human woman was actually quite flattering.

 

Especially since she'd stop thinking of herself as human some time back.

 

They ended up dancing, adding their bodies to the surging crowd that filled the mosh pit. At one point, Sonja was amazed to find herself laughing, genuinely laughing, one arm wrapped about Judd's waist. And then Judd leaned in and kissed her.

 

She barely had time to retract her fangs before his tongue found hers. She slid her other arm around his waist and pulled him close, grinding herself against him. He responded eagerly, his erection rubbing against her hip like a friendly tomcat. And she found herself wondering how his blood would taste.

 

She pushed him away so hard he staggered backward, nearly falling on his ass. Sonja shook her head as if trying to dislodge something in her ear, a guttural moan rising from her chest.

 

"Sonja?" There was a confused, hurt look on his face.

 

She could see his blood beckoning her from just beneath the surface of his skin: the veins traced in blue, the arteries pulsing purple. She turned her back on him and ran from the temptation, her head lowered.

 

She shouldered her way through a knot of dancers, sending them flying like duckpins. Some of the bar's patrons hurled insults in her direction, a couple even spat at her, but she was deaf to their anger.

 

She put a couple of blocks between her and the bar before slumping into a darkened doorway, staring at her shaking hands as if they belonged to someone else.

 

"I liked him. I honestly liked him and I was going to... going to..."

 

Like. Hate. What's the difference? Blood is the life, wherever it comes from.

 

"Not like that. I never feed off anyone who doesn't deserve it. Never."

 

Aren't we special?

 

"Shut up, bitch."

 

"Sonja?"

 

She had him pinned to the wall, one forearm clamped against his windpipe in a chokehold before she recognized his face. Judd clawed at her arm, his eyes bugging from their sockets.

 

"I'm ...sorry..." he gasped out.

 

She let him go. "No, I'm the one who should be sorry. More than you realize."

 

Judd regarded her apprehensively as he massaged his throat, but there was still no fear in his eyes. "Look, I don't know what it is I said or did back there that put you off..."

 

"The problem isn't with you, Judd. Believe me. Look, I gotta go." She turned and began walking away, but he hurried after her.

 

"I know an all-night coffeehouse near here. Maybe we could talk..?"

 

"Judd, just leave me alone, okay? You'd be a lot better off if you just forgot you ever met me."

 

"How could I forget someone like you?"

 

"Easier than you realize."

 

He was keeping pace alongside her, desperately trying to make eye contact. "C'mon Sonja! Give it a chance! I - damn it, would you just take your shades off and look at me?"

 

Sonja stopped in mid-step to face him, her expression unreadable behind her mirrored sunglasses. "That's the last thing you want me to do."

 

Judd sighed and fished a pen and piece of paper out of his pocket. "You're one weird chick, that's for sure! But I like you, don't ask me why." He scribbled something on the scrap of paper and shoved it into her hand. "Look, here's my phone number. Call me, okay?"

 

Sonja closed her fist around the paper. "Judd - "

 

He held his hands out, palms facing up. "No strings attached, I promise. Just call me."

 

Sonja was surprised to find herself smiling. "Okay. I'll call you. Now will you leave me alone?"

 

When she revived the next evening, she found Judd's phone number tucked away in one of the pockets of her jacket. She sat cross-legged on the canvas futon that served as her bed and stared at it for a long time.

 

She'd been careful to make sure Judd hadn't followed her the night before. Her current nest was a drafty loft apartment in the attic of an old warehouse in the neighborhood just beyond the French Quarter. Save for her sleeping pal let, an antique cedar wardrobe, a Salvation Army-issue chair, a mini-fridge , a cordless telephone, and the scattered packing crates containing the esoteric curios she used as barter, the huge space was otherwise empty. Except for those occasions when the Dead came to visit. Such as tonight.

 

At first she didn't recognize the ghost, as he had lost his sense of self in the years since his death, which blurred his spectral image somewhat. He swirled up through the floorboards like a gust of blue smoke, gradually taking shape before her eyes. It was only when the phantom produced a smoldering cigarette from his own ectoplasm that she recognized him for who he once had been.

 

"Hello, Chaz."

 

The ghost of her former renfield made a noise that sounded like a cat being drowned. The Dead cannot speak clearly - even to Pretenders - except on three days of the year: Fat Tuesday, Halloween, and Candlemas. The ghost-light radiating from him was the only illumination in the room. "Come to see how your murderer is getting on, I take it?"

 

Chaz made a sound like a church bell played at half-speed.

 

"Sorry, I don't have a Ouij a board, or we could have a proper conversation. Is there a special occasion for tonight's haunting, or are things just boring over on your side?"

 

Chaz frowned and pointed at the scrap of paper Sonja held in her hand. "What? You don't want me to call this number?"

 

Chaz nodded his head, nearly sending it floating from his shoulders. "You tried warning Palmer away from me last Mardi Gras. Didn't work, but I suppose you know that already. He's living in Central America right now. We're very happy."

 

The ghost's laughter sounded like fingers raking a chalkboard. Sonja grimaced. "Yeah, big laugh, dead head. And I'll tell you one thing, Chaz; Palmer's a damn sight better in bed than you ever were!"

 

Chaz made an obscene gesture that was rendered pointless since he no longer had a body from the waist down. Sonja laughed and clapped her hands, rocking back and forth on her haunches.

 

"I knew that'd burn your ass, dead or not! Now piss off! I've got better things to do than play charades with a ghostly hustler!"

 

Chaz yowled like a baby dropped in a vat of boiling oil and disappeared in a swirl of dust and ectoplasm, leaving Sonja alone with Judd's phone number still clenched in one fist.

 

Hell, she thought as she reached for the cordless phone beside the futon. If Chaz doesn't want me to call the guy, then it must be the right thing to do....

 

****

 

The place where they rendezvoused was a twenty-four hour establishment in the French Quarter that had once been a bank, then a show-bar, then a porno shop, before finally deciding on being a coffee house.

 

Judd's hair was freshly washed and he smelled of aftershave, but those were the only concessions made to the mating ritual. He still wore his nose- and earrings, as well as a Bongwater T shirt that had been laundered so often the silk-screened image was starting to flake off.

 

Judd poked at the iced coffee with a straw. "If I'm not getting too personal - what was last night all about?"

 

Sonja studied her hands as she spoke. "Look, Judd. There's a lot about me you don't know - and I'd like to keep it that way. If you insist on asking about my past, I'm afraid I'll have to leave. It's not that I don't like you - I do - but I'm a very private person. And it's for a good reason."

 

"Is there someone else?"

 

"Yes. Yes, there is."

 

"A husband?"

 

She had to think about that one for a few seconds before answering. "In some ways. But, no; I'm not married."

 

Judd nodded as if this explained something. It was obvious that what she said was bothering him, but he was trying to play it cool. Sonja wondered what it was like. Living a life where the worst things you had to deal with were jealous lovers and hurt feelings. It seemed almost paradisiacal from where she stood.

 

After they finished their iced coffees they hit the Quarter. It was after midnight, and the lower section of Decatur Street was starting to wake up. The streets outside the bars were decorated with clots of young people dressed in black leather, sequins, and recycled Seventies rags. The scenesters milled about, flashing their tattoos and bumming cigarettes off one another, as they waited for something to happen.

 

Someone called Judd's name and he swerved across the street toward at knot of youths lounging outside the Crystal Blue Persuasion Dance Club. Sonja hesitated before following him.

 

A young man dressed in a black duster, his shoulder-length hair braided into three pig tails and held in place by Tibetan mala beads carved into the shapes of skulls, moved forward to greet Judd.

 

Out of habit, Sonja scanned his face for Pretender taint, but it came up human. While the two spoke, she casually examined the rest of the group loitering outside the club. Human. Human. Human. Hu - She froze.

 

The smell of vargr was strong, like the stink of a wet dog. The only reason she had not noticed it before was the reek of fish and freshly slaughtered poultry from the nearby French Market. The odor was radiating from a young man with a shaved forehead, whose hair at the back of his head was extremely long and held in a loose ponytail, making him look like a punk mandarin. He wore a leather jacket whose sleeves might well have been chewed off at the shoulder, trailing streamers of mangled leather and lining like gristle. He had one arm draped around a little punkette, her face made deathly pale by powder and grease paint.

 

The vargr met Sonja's gaze and held it, grinning his contempt. Her hand closed instinctively around her switchblade.

 

"I'd like you to meet a friend of mine - "

 

Judd's hand was on her elbow, drawing her attention away from the teenaged werewolf. Sonja struggled to conceal the disorientation from having her focus broken.

 

"Huh?"

 

"Sonja, I'd like you to meet Arlo, he's an old buddy of mine..."

 

Arlo frowned at Sonja as if she'd just emerged from under a rock, but offered his hand in deference to his friend. "Pleased to meet you," he mumbled. Sonja shot a sideways glance at the vargr twelve feet away. He was murmuring something into the punkette's ear. She giggled and nodded her head and the two broke away from the rest of the group, sauntering down the street in the direction of the river. The vargr paused to give Sonja one last look Over his shoulder, his grin too wide and his teeth too big, before disappearing into the shadows with his victim.

 

That's right. Pretend you didn't see it. Pretend you don't know what that grinning hellhound's going to do with that girl. You can't offend lover boy here by running off to do hand-to-hand combat with a werewolf, can you?

 

"Shut the fuck up, damn you," she muttered under her breath.

 

"What did you just say?" Arlo snapped, jerking his hand free from her grip.

 

"I'm sorry," she said hastily. "I was thinking about something else." Arlo grunted and nodded his head, but cast a hard look over his shoulder in Sonja's direction as she and Judd continued on their way. She could feel suspicion and hostility tingeing his thoughts.

 

Jesus, Judd's got himself another head case.

 

As they passed one of the seedy bars that catered to the late-night hardcore alcoholic trade, someone's mind called out Sonja's name, and a black man, his hair plaited into dreadlocks, stepped from the doorway of the Monastery. He vote a black turtleneck sweater and immaculate designer jeans, a gold peace sign he size of a hood ornament slung around his neck. "Long time no see, Blue."

 

"Hello, Mal," Sonja said with a weary sigh.

 

The demon Malfeis smiled, exposing teeth that belonged in the mouth of a shark. "No hard feelings, I hope? I didn't want to sell you out like that, girlchick, but I was under orders from Below Stairs."

 

"We'll talk about it later, Mal...."

 

The demon nodded in the direction of Judd. "Got yourself a new renfield, I see."

 

"Shut up!" Sonja hissed.

 

Mal lifted his hands, palms outward. "Whoa! Didn't mean to hit a sore spot there, girly-girl."

 

"Sonja? Is this guy bothering you?" Judd was hovering at her elbow. He gave Mal a suspicious glare, blind to the demon's true appearance.

 

"No. Everything's cool." Sonja turned her back on the grinning demon and tried to block the sound of his laughter echoing in her mind.

 

"Who was that guy?"

 

"Judd - "

 

"I know! I promised I wouldn't pry into your past."

 

Sonja shrugged. "Mal is a - business associate of mine. That's all you need to know about him, except, no matter what, never ask him a question. Ever." They walked on in silence for a few more minutes, and then Judd took her into his arms. His kiss was warm and probing and she felt herself begin to relax. Then he reached for her sunglasses.

 

She batted his hand away, fighting the urge to snarl. "Don't do that."

 

"I just want to see your eyes."

 

"No." She pulled away from him, her body rigid as a board.

 

"I'm sorry - "

 

"I better leave. I had a nice time, Judd. I really did. But I have to go."

 

"You'll call me, won't you?"

 

"I'm afraid so."

 

Why don't you fuck him? He wants it bad. So do you. You can't hide that from me.

 

The Other's voice was a nettle wedged into the folds of her brain, impossible to dislodge or ignore. Sonja opened the mini-fridge and took out a bottle of whole blood, cracking its seal open like she would a beer.

 

Not that bottled crap again! I hate this shit! You might as well go back to drinking cats! Wouldn't you rather have something nice and fresh? Say a good B negative mugger or an O positive rapist? There's still plenty of time to go trawling before the sun comes up... or you could always pay a visit to lover-boy.

 

"Shut up! I've had a bellyful of you tonight already!"

 

My-my! Aren't we being a touchy one? Tell me, how long do you think you can keep up the pretense of being normal? You've almost forgotten what it's like to be human yourself. Why torture yourself by pretending you're something you're not simply to win the favor of a piece of beefsteak?

 

"He likes me, damn it. He actually likes me."

 

And what exactly are you?

 

"I'm not in the mood for your fuckin' mind games!"

 

Welcome to the fold, my dear. You're finally one of us. You're a Pretender.

 

Sonja hurled the half-finished bottle of blood into the sink. She picked up the card table and smashed it to the floor, jumping up and down on the scattered pieces. It was a stupid, pointless gesture, but it made her feel better.

 

She knew it was stupid, even dangerous, to socialize with humans, but she couldn't help herself. There was something about Judd that kept drawing her back, against her better judgment. The only other time she'd known such compulsion was when the thirst was on her. Was this love? Or was it simply another form of hunger?

 

Their relationship, while charged with an undercurrent of eroticism, was essentially sexless. She wanted him so badly she did not dare do more than kiss or hold hands. If she should lose control, there was no telling what might happen.

 

Judd, unlike Palmer, wasn't a Sensitive. He was a basic, garden variety human, blind and dumb to the miracles and terrors of the Real World, just like poor, doomed Claude Hagerty had been. Rapid exposure to the universe in which she lived could do immense and irreparable damage to those unequipped to handle it.

 

To his credit, Judd hadn't pressed the sex issue over much. He wasn't happy with the arrangement, but honored her request that they "take it slow."

 

This, however, did not sit well with the Other. It constantly taunted her, goading her with obscene fantasies and suggestions concerning Judd. Or, failing to elicit a response using those tactics, it would chastise her for being un true to Palmer. Sonja tried to ignore its gibes as best she could, but she knew that something, sometime was bound to snap.

 

Kitty wiped at the tears oozing from the corner of her eye, smearing mascara over her cheek and the back of her hand. It made the words on the paper swim and crawl like insects, but she didn't care.

 

She loved Judd. She really, truly loved him. And maybe after she did what she had to do to save him, he'd finally believe her. He needed proof of her love. And what better proof than to rescue him from the clutches of a monster?

 

Dearest Judd, I tried to warn you about That Woman. But you are blind to what she Really Is. She is Evil Itself, a demon sent from Hell to claim your Soul! I knew her for what she truly was the moment I first saw her, and she knew I knew, too! Her hands and mouth drip blood! Her eyes burn with the fires of Hell! She is surrounded by a cloud of energy as red as blood. She means to drag you to Hell, Judd. But I won't let her! I love you too much to let that happen. I'll take care of this horrible monster, don't you worry. I've been talking to God a lot lately, and He told me how to deal with demons like her. I Love you so very, very much. I want you to Love me too. I'm doing this all for you. Please Love Me.

 

Kitty Judd woke up at two in the afternoon, as was usual for him. He worked six to midnight four days out of the week and had long since shifted over to a nocturnal lifestyle. After he got off work he normally headed down to the Quarter to chill with his buddies or, more recently, hang with Sonja until four or five in the morning before heading home.

 

He yawned as he dumped a heaping tablespoons of Guatemalan into the hopper of his Mr. Coffee.

 

Sonja. Now there was a weird chick. Weird, but not in a schizzy, death-obsessed art-school freshman way like Kitty. Her strangeness issued from something far deeper than bourgeois neurosis. Sonja was genuinely out there, wherever that might be. There was something about the way she moved, the way she handled herself, which suggested she was plugged into something Real. And a frustrating as her fits of mood might be, he could not bring himself to turn his back on her.

 

Still, it bothered him that none of his friends liked her - not even Arlo, who he'd known since junior high school. Some of them even seemed to be scared of her. Funny. How could anyone be frightened of Sonja?

 

Sure, she could be intense... but scary?

 

As he shuffled in the direction of the bathroom, he noticed an envelope shoved under his front door. He stooped to retrieve it, scowling at the all-too familiar handwriting.

 

Kitty.

 

Probably another one of her damn fool love letters, alternately threatening him with castration and begging him to take her back. Lately she'd taken to leaving rambling, wigged-out messages on his answering machine, ranting about Sonja being some kind of hell-beast out to steal his soul. Crazy bitch.

 

Sonja was crazy, too, but not in such a predictable, boring way.

 

Judd tossed the envelope, unopened, into the trashcan and staggered off to the bathroom to take a shower.

 

Sonja Blue greeted the night from atop the roof of the warehouse where she made her nest. She stretched her arms wide as if to embrace the rising moon, listening with half an ear to the baying of the hounds along the riverbanks. Some, she knew, were not dogs. But the vargr was not her concern tonight. She'd tangled with a few of their breed over the years, but she found hunting her own kind vastly more satisfying. Since warehouse's exterior fire escape was badly rusted and groaned noisily with the slightest movement, Sonja avoided it altogether. She crawled, headfirst, down the side of the building, moving like a lizard on a garden wall. Once she reached the bottom, she routinely pat-checked her jacket pockets to make sure nothing had fallen out during her descent.

 

There was a hissing sound in her head, as if someone had abruptly pumped up the volume on a radio tuned to a dead channel, and something heavy caught her between the shoulder blades, lifting her off her feet and knocking her into a row of garbage cans.

 

She barely had time to roll out of the way before something big and silvery smashed down where her head had been a second before. She coughed and black blood flew from her lips; a rib had broken off and pierced one of her lungs.

 

Kitty stood over her, clutching a three-foot long, solid silver crucifix like a baseball bat. While her madness gave her strength, it was still obvious the damn thing was heavy. Sonja wondered which church she'd stolen it from.

 

The dead channel crackling in Sonja's head grew louder. She recognized it as the sound of homicidal rage. Shrieking incoherently, Kitty swung at her rival a third time. While crosses and crucifixes had no effect on her - on any vampire, for that matter - if Kitty succeeded in landing a lucky blow and snapped her spine or cracked open her skull, she was dead no matter what. Sonja rolled clear and got to tier feet in one swift, fluid motion. Kitty swung at her again, but this time Sonja stepped inside her reach and grabbed the crucifix, wresting it from the other woman's hands.

 

Kitty staggered back, staring in disbelief, waiting for Sonja's hand to burst into flames as she hefted the heavy silver cross. It was at least three inches thick, the beams as wide as a man's hand, and at its center hung a miniature Christ fashioned of gold and platinum.

 

"What the hell did you think you were going to solve, clobbering me with this piece of junk?" Sonja snarled.

 

Kitty's eyes were huge, the pupils swimming in madness. "You can't have him! I won't let you take his soul!"

 

"Who said anything about me stealing - "

 

"Monster!" Kitty launched herself at Sonja, her fingers clawing at her face. "Monster!"

 

Sonja instinctively defended herself, swatting Kitty with the crucifix. The mad woman dropped to the alley floor. The only thing still holding her head onto her body were the muscles of her neck. Way to go, kiddo! You just killed lover-boy's bug-shit ex-girlfriend! You're batting a thousand! "Shit." She tossed the crucifix aside and squatted next to the body. No need to check for vital signs. The girl was d-e-a-d.

 

What to do? She couldn't toss the corpse in the dumpster. Someone was bound to find it, and once the body was identified New Orleans Homicide would take Judd in for questioning. Which meant they'd be looking for her, sooner or later. And she couldn't have that.

 

I've got an idea, crooned the Other. Just let me handle it.

 

Stealing the car was easy. It was a '76 Ford LTD with a muffler held in place with baling wire and a Duke for Governor sticker on the sagging rear bumper. Just the thing to unobtrusively dispose of a murder victim in the swamps surrounding New Orleans during the dead of night.

 

Out in New Orleans East, there was what was to have been yet another cookie-cutter housing development built on the very fringes of the marshlands of Lake Pontchartain. The contractors got as far as pouring the concrete slab foundations before the oil slump hit, then the money dried up. The condos were never built, but the access road from the interstate still remained, although there was nothing at its end but an overgrown tangle of briars and vines that had become a breeding ground for snakes and alligators.

 

She drove the last mile without lights. Not that she needed them. She could see just fine in the dark.

 

Having reached her destination, she cut the engine and rolled to a stop. Except for the chirring of frogs and the grunting of gators, everything was quiet.

 

Sonja climbed out of the car and opened the trunk with a length of bent coat hanger. She stood for a second, silently inventorying the collection of plastic trash bags. There were six, total: one for the head, one for the torso, and one apiece for each limb. She'd already burned Kitty's clothing in the warehouse's furnace and disposed of her jewelry and teeth by tossing them into the river.

 

She gathered up the bags and left the access road, heading in the direction of the swamp. She could hear things splashing in the water, some of them quite large.

 

She paused for a second on the bank of the bayou. Something nearby hissed at her, then slithered out of the way. She tossed the bag containing Kitty's head into the murky water.

 

The assembled gators splashed and wrestled amongst themselves for the tender morsels like ducks fighting for scraps of stale bread.

 

Sonja was tired. Very tired. After this was over she still had to drive the stolen car to a suitably disreputable urban area and set it on fire. She looked down at her hands. They were streaked with blood.

 

She absently licked them clean.

 

When she was finished the Other looked through her eyes and smiled. The Other wasn't tired. Not in the least.

 

It hadn't been a very good night, as far as Judd was concerned. He'd gotten chewed out concerning his attitude at work, Arlo and the others had treated him like he had a championship case of halitosis, and, to cap the evening, Sonja pulled a no-show. Time to pack it in. It was four o'clock when he got home. He was in such a piss-poor mood he didn't even bother to turn on the lights.

 

His answering machine, for once, didn't have one of Kitty's bizarro messages on it. Nothing from Sonja, either. He grunted as he removed his shirt. Was she mad at him? Had he said or done something the last time they were together that ticked her off?

 

It was hard to figure out her moods, since she refused to take off those damn mirrored sunglasses. Judd wondered how she could navigate in the dark so well while wearing those fuckers.

 

Something moved at the corner of his eye. It was the curtain covering the window that faced the alley.

 

Funny, he didn't remember leaving that open... Someone stepped out of the shadows, greeting him with a smile that displayed teeth that were too sharp. Judd felt his heart jerk into overdrive as the adrenaline surged into his system. Just as he was ready to yell for help, he recognized her.

 

"S-Sonja?"

 

"Did I scare you?" Her voice sounded like something out of The Exorcist. She sniffed the air and her smile grew even sharper. "Yes. Yes, I did scare you, didn't I?" She moved toward him, her hands making slow, hypnotic passes as she spoke. "I love the smell of fear in the morning."

 

"Sonja, what's wrong with your voice?"

 

"Wrong?" The Other chuckled as she unzipped her leather jacket. "I always sound like this!"

 

She was on him so fast he didn't even see her move, lifting him by his belt buckle and flinging him onto the bed so hard he bounced. She grabbed his jaw in one hand, angling it back so the jugular was exposed.

 

Judd heard the snik: of a switchblade and felt a cold, sharp pressure against his throat.

 

"Sonja, what are you doing?"

 

"Do not struggle. Do not cry out," she whispered, her voice as harsh and as cold as a metal rasp pressed to his ear. "Do as I command, and maybe I'll let you live. Maybe."

 

"What do you want?"

 

"Why, my dear, I just want to get to know you better." The Other removed the sunglasses protecting her eyes with her free hand. "And vice versa." Judd had often wondered what Sonja's eyes looked like. Were they almond-shaped or round? Blue, brown, or green? However, he had never once pictured them as blood red with pupils so hugely dilated they resembled shoe buttons.

 

The Other smirked, savoring the look of disgust on Judd's face. She pressed her lips against his, thrusting his teeth apart with her tongue, and penetrated his will with one quick shove of her mind.

 

Judd's limbs twitched convulsively then went still as she took control of his nervous system. The Other disengaged, physically, and stared down at him. He couldn't move, his body locked into partial paralysis.

 

Satisfied her control was secure, she moved the switchblade from Judd's throat.

 

"I can see why she finds you attractive. You're a pretty thing... very pretty." The Other reached out and pinched one of his nipples until it began to purple. Judd didn't flinch. "But she's much too old fashioned when it comes to sex, don't you agree? She's afraid to let herself go and walk the wild side. She's so repressed." The Other shrugged out of her leather jacket, allowing it to fall to the floor. "I will explain this to you once, and once only. I own you. If you do as I tell you, and you please me, then you shall be rewarded. Like this." She reached into his cortex and tweaked its pleasure center. Judd shuddered as the wave of ecstasy swept over him, his hips involuntarily humping empty air.

 

"But if you fight me, or displease me in any way - then I will punish you. Like so."

 

Judd emitted a strangled cry as he was speared through the pain receptor in his brain. It felt as if the top of his skull had been removed and someone had dumped the contents of an ant farm on his exposed brain.

 

His back arched until he thought his spine would snap. Then the pain stopped as it it'd never been there at all.

 

"Hold me."

 

Judd did as he was told, dragging himself upright and wrapping his arms around her waist. The Other knotted her fingers in his hair, pulling his head back so she could look into his eyes.

 

"Am I hurting you? Say yes."

 

"Yes."

 

"Good."

 

She smiled, exposing her fangs, and with a cold shudder he realized that the worst had not even begun.

 

They fucked for three hours straight, the Other skillfully manipulating his pleasure centers so that he remained perpetually erect, despite his physical exhaustion. She randomly induced orgasms, until they numbered in the dozens. After the seventh or eighth climax, he was shooting air. She seemed to enjoy his wails each time he spasmed.

 

As dawn began to make its way into the room, she severed her control of Judd's body. He fell away from her in mid-thrust, his eyes rolled back behind flickering lids. The Other dressed quickly, her attention fixed on the rising sun. Judd lay curled in a fetal position amongst the soiled and tangled bedclothes, his naked body shuddering and jerking as his nervous system reasserted its control.

 

"Parting is such sweet sorrow," purred the Other, caressing his shivering flank. Judd gasped at her touch but did not pull away. "You pleased me. This time. So I will let you live. This time."

 

She lowered her head to his neck, brushing his jugular lightly with her lips. Judd squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation of the bite. But all she did was whisper: "Get used to it, lover boy."

 

When he opened his eyes again, she was gone.

 

The Other took a great deal of pleasure in telling Sonja what it had done to Judd, making sure not to leave out a single, tasty detail as it reran that morning's exploits inside her skull.

 

Sonja's response to the news was to scream and run headfirst into the nearest wall, then to continue pounding her skull against the floorboards until her glasses shattered and blood streamed down her face and matted her hair. She succeeded in breaking her nose and fracturing both cheekbones before collapsing.

 

"Girly-girl! Long time no see! What brings you into my little den of iniquity this time?"

 

The demon Malfeis sported the exterior of a flabby white male in late middle age, dressed in a loud plaid polyester leisure suit with white buck loafers. A collection of gold medallions dangled under his chins and he held a racing form in one hand.

 

Sonja slid into the booth opposite the demon. "I need magic, Mal."

 

"Don't we all? Say, what's that with the face? You can reconstruct better than that...."

 

She shrugged, one hand absently straying to her swollen left cheek. The bone squelched under her fingertips and slid slightly askew. Heavy-duty facial reconstruction required feeding in order for it to be done right, and she'd deliberately skipped her waking meal.

 

"You tangle with an ogre? One of those vargr punks?"

 

"Leave it be, Mal."

 

Malfeis shrugged. "Just trying to be friendly, that's all. Now, what kind of magic are you in the market for?"

 

"Binding and containment."

 

The demon grunted and fished out a pocket calculator, his exterior flickering for a moment to reveal a hulking creature that resembled an orangutan with a boar's snout. "What kind of demon are you looking to lock down?"

 

"I wish to have myself bound and contained."

 

Malfeis glanced up from the calculator, a sour look on his face. "Are you shitting me or what, girlchick?"

 

"Name your price, damn you."

 

"Don't be redundant, girlchick."

 

Sonja sighed and hefted a knapsack onto the tabletop. "I brought some of my finest acquisitions. I've got hair shaved from Ted Bundy's head just before he was to go to the chair, dried blood scraped from the walls of the LaBianco home, a spent rifle casing from the grassy knoll, and a cedar cigar box with what's left of Rasputin's penis in it. Quality shit. I swear by its authenticity. And it's all yours, if you do this one thing for me."

 

Malfeis fidgeted, drumming his talons against the table. Such close proximity to so much human suffering and evil was bringing on a jones. "Okay, I'll do it. But I'm not going to take responsibility for anything that happens to you."

 

"Did I ask you to?"

 

"Are you sure about this, Sonja?"

 

"Your concern touches me, Mal. It really does."

 

The demon shook his head in disbelief. "You really mean to go through with this, don't you? Sonja, once you're in there, there's no way you'll be able to escape, unless someone on the outside breaks the seal."

 

"Maybe."

 

"There's no maybe to it!" he retorted.

 

"The spell you're using is for the binding and containment of vampire energies, right?"

 

"Of course. You're a vampire."

 

She shrugged. "Part of me is. And I'm not letting it out to hurt anyone ever again. I'm going to kill it or die trying."

 

"You're going to starve in there!"

 

"That's the whole point. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll starve that side of myself to death, so that I can walk away clean and human."

 

"Whatever you say, girly-girl. But if you ask me, you're out of your fucking mind."

 

Sonja hugged herself as she stared into the open doorway of the meat locker. It was cold and dark inside, just like the Other's heart. "I'm not paying for your opinions, just your hoodoo. Let's get this show on the road."

 

Malfeis nodded and produced a number of candles, bottles of oil, pieces of black chalk, and bags of white powder from the Gladstone bag he carried. Sonja swallowed and stepped inside the meat locker, drawing the heavy door closed behind her with a muffled thump.

 

Malfeis lit the candles and began to chant in a deep, sonorous voice, scrawling elaborate designs on the outer walls of the locker with the black chalk. As the chanting grew faster and more impassioned, he smeared oil on the hinges and handle of the door. There was an electric crackle and the door glowed with blue fire.

 

Malfeis' incantation lost all semblance of human speech as it reached its climax. He carefully poured a line of white powder across the threshold, made from equal parts salt, sand and the crushed bones of human babies.. Then he stepped back to assess his handiwork.

 

To human eyes it looked like someone had scrawled graffiti all over the face of the stainless steel locker, nothing more. But to Pretender eyes, eyes adjusted to the Real World, the door to the locker was barred by a tangle of darkly pulsing V?V?, the semi-sentient protective symbols of the voudou powers. As long as the tableau remained undisturbed, the entity known as Sonja Blue would remain trapped within the chill darkness of the meat locker.

 

Malfeis replaced the tools of his trade in the Gladstone bag. He paused as he left the warehouse, glancing over his shoulder.

 

"Goodbye, girly-girl. It was nice knowing you."

 

"I'm looking for Mal."

 

The bartender looked up from his racing form and frowned at Judd. After taking in his unwashed hair and four days' growth of beard, he nodded in the direction of the back booth.

 

Judd had never been inside the Monastery before. It had a reputation as being one of the sleazier - and most uninviting - French Quarter dives, and he could see why. The booths lining the wall had once been church pews. Plaster saints in various stages of decay were scattered about on display. A Madonna with skin blackened and made leprous by age regarded him from above the bar with flat, faded blue eyes, an equally scabrous Baby Jesus, cradled in her rotting arms.

 

Judd walked to the back of the bar and looked into the last booth. All he saw was a paunchy middle-aged man dressed in a bad suit smoking a cigar and reading a dog-eared porno novel.

 

"Excuse me... ?"

 

The man in the bad suit looked up at him, arching a bushy, upswept eyebrow, but said nothing.

 

"Uh, excuse me - but I'm looking for Mal."

 

"You found him."

 

Judd blinked, confused. "No, I'm afraid there's been some kind of mistake. The guy I'm looking for is black, with dreadlocks..."

 

The man in the bad suit smiled. It was not a pleasant sight. "Sit down, kid. He'll be with you in just a moment."

 

Still uncertain of what he was getting himself into, Judd slid into the opposite pew.

 

The older man lowered his head, exposing an advanced case of male pattern baldness, and hunched his shoulders. His fingers and arms began vibrating, the skin growing darker as if his entire body had suddenly become bruised. There was a sound of dry grass rustling under a high wind and thick, black dreadlocks emerged from his scalp, whipping about like a nest of snakes. Judd was too shocked by the transformation to do anything but stare.

 

Mal lifted his head and grinned at Judd, tugging at the collar of his turtleneck. "Ah, yes. I remember you now. Sonja's renfield."

 

"My name's not Renfield."

 

Mal shrugged indifferently. "So, what brings you here, boychick?"

 

"I'm looking for Sonja. I can't find her."

 

"That's because she doesn't want to be found."

 

"But I have to find her! Before she does something stupid, like kill herself, maybe."

 

Mal regarded the young human with a look of mild amusement in his dark eyes. "Tell me more."

 

"She sent me this letter a few days ago." Judd fished a much-folded envelope out of his back pocket and held it out to Mal. "Here, you read it."

 

The demon took the letter out of its envelope like a gourmet removing an escargot from its shell. He unfolded the paper, carefully noting the lack of signature and the smears of blood in the margins.

 

Judd, I can never be forgiven for what was done to you, even though I was not the one who did those thing. Please believe that. It was her. She is the one that makes me kill and hurt people. She is the one who hurt you.

 

I promise I'll never let her hurt anyone, ever again. Especially you. I'm going to try something I should have done years ago, before she became so strong. She is sated now, at least for the moment. Which means she is asleep. By the time she becomes aware of what I'm planning, it will be too late. I'm going to kill her. I may very well end up killing myself in the bargain, but that's a chance I'm willing to take. I won't let her hurt anyone ever again, damn her. I love you, Judd. Don't try to find me. Escape while you can.

 

"She doesn't understand." Judd was close to tears as he spoke. "I do forgive her. I love her, damn it! I can't let her die!"

 

"You know what she is," Mal said flatly. It wasn't a question.

 

Judd nodded. "I know. And I don't care."

 

"So why have you come to me?"

 

"You know where she is, don't you?"

 

Malfeis shifted in his seat, his eyes developing reptilian slits. "Are you asking me a question?"

 

Judd hesitated, recalling Sonja's warning that he should never, under any circumstance, ask Mal a question. He took a deep breath and nodded his head, his lips pressed into a tight line.

 

Mal smiled, displaying shark's teeth. "Before I respond to any questions put to me, you must pay the price of the answer. Is that understood, boychick?" Judd swallowed and nodded.

 

"Very well. Tell me your name. All of it."

 

"That's all you want?" Judd frowned, baffled. "My name is Michael Judd Rieser."

 

"To know a thing's name gives one power over that thing, my sweet. Didn't they teach you that in school?

 

Come to think of it, I guess they don't."

 

"What about my question? Do you know where Sonja is?"

 

"Yes, I do." The demon scrawled an address on the back of the letter Judd had given him. "You'll find her here. She's inside the meat locker on the ground floor."

 

"Meat locker?"

 

"I wouldn't open it if I were you."

 

Judd snatched up the address and slid out of the pew. "But I'm not you!"

 

Malfeis watched Judd hurry out of the bar with an amused grin. "That's what you think, boychick." He leaned back and closed his eyes. When he reopened them, he was white with shoulder-length hair pulled in a ponytail, a ring in his nose, and a four days' growth of beard.

 

It was cold. So very, very cold.

 

Sonja sat huddled in the far corner of the meat locker, her knees drawn up to her chest. Her breath drifted from her mouth and nostrils in wispy flumes before condensing and turning to frost on her face.

 

How long? How many days had she been here? Three? Four? Twenty? A hundred? There was no way of telling. She no longer slept. The Other's incessant screams and curses made sure of that.

 

Let me out! Let me out of this hellhole! I've got to feed! I'm starving! "Good."

 

You stupid cunt! If I starve to death, you go with me! I'm not a damned tapeworm! "Couldn't prove it to me."

 

I'm getting out of here! I don't care what you say! The Other forced her stiffened limbs to bend, levering her onto her feet. Her joints cracked like rotten timber as she moved. She staggered in the direction of the door. In her weakened condition she had difficulty seeing in the pitch black of the meat locker, forcing her to abandon her sunglasses.

 

Her groping hands closed on the door's interior handle. There was a sharp crackle and a flash of blue light as she was thrown halfway across the locker. She screamed and writhed like a cat hit by a car, holding her blistered, smoking hands away from her body. This was the twentieth time the Other had tried to open the door, and several of her fingers were on the verge of gangrene.

 

"You're not going anywhere. Not now. Not ever!"

 

Fuck you! Fuck you! I'll get you for this, you human-loving cow! "What? Are you going to kill me?"

 

Sonja crawled back to her place in the corner. The effort started her coughing again, bringing up black, clotted blood. She wiped at her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket, nearly dislocating her lower jaw in the process.

 

You're falling apart. You're too weak to regenerate properly....

 

"You're the one who pounded your head against the fuckin' wall trying to get out."

 

You're the one that got us locked up in here! Don't blame me! "I am blaming you. But not for that."

 

It's that fucking stupid human again! You think you can punish me for that? I didn't do anything that you hadn't already fantasized about! "You raped him, damn you! You could have killed him!"

 

I didn't, though. I could have. But I didn't.

 

"I loved him!" Sonja's voice cracked, became a sob.

 

You don't love him. You love being mistaken for human. That's what you're really mad at me about.

 

You're upset that I ruined your little game of Let's Pretend! "Shut up."

 

Make me.

 

Judd checked the street number of the warehouse against the address that Mal had given him. This was the place. It was one of the few remaining warehouses in the district that had not been turned into an overpriced yuppie ghetto. There was a small, hand-lettered sign posted on the front door that read Indigo Imports, and a heavy chain and double padlock wrapped about the handle. A quick check of the ground floor confirmed that all the windows were secured with burglar bars.

 

He rounded the side of the building and spotted the loading dock. After a few minutes of determined tugging, he succeeded in wrenching the sliding metal door open wide enough for him to slide under. The inside of the warehouse was lit only by the mid-afternoon sunlight slanting through the barred windows and the place smelled of dust and rat piss. The meat locker was on the ground floor, just where Mal said it would be. Its metal walls and door were covered in swirls of spray-painted graffiti. What looked like a huge line of cocaine marked the locker's threshold. Judd grabbed the door's handle and yanked it open.

 

There was a faint crackling sound and a rush of cold, foul air. He squinted into the darkness, covering his nose and breathing through his mouth.

 

"Sonja?"

 

Something moved in the deepest shadows of the freezer. He stepped in the direction of the movement.

 

"Sonja, it's me, baby. "

 

"Go away." It sounded like she was talking through a mouth full of mud. "You don't know what you're doing."

 

Judd took another step into the locker, his eyes finally adjusting to the gloom. He could see her now, crouching in the far corner with her knees drawn against her chest, her face turned to the wall.

 

"No, you're wrong, Sonja. I know exactly what I'm doing."

 

"I let her hurt you, Judd. I could have stopped her, but I didn't. I let her - let her - " Her voice trailed off as her shoulders began to shake. "Go away before I hurt you again."

 

Judd kneeled beside her. She smelled like a side of beef gone bad. Her hands were covered with blisters and oozing sores, and some of her fingers jutted at odd angles, as if they had been broken without being properly set. She pulled away at his touch, pressing herself against the wall as if she could somehow squeeze between the cracks.

 

"Don't look at me."

 

"Sonja, you don't understand. I love you. I know what you are, what you're capable of - and I love you anyway."

 

"Even if I hurt you?"

 

"Especially when you hurt me."

 

She turned her head in his direction. Her face looked like it had been smashed, then reassembled by a well-meaning, but inept, plastic surgeon with only a blurry photograph to go by. Her eyes glowed like those of an animal pinned in the headlights of an oncoming car.

 

"What?"

 

Judd leaned closer, his eyes reflecting a hunger she knew all too well. "At first when it happened, I was scared. Then, I realized I wasn't frightened anymore. I've never known anything like it before! It was incredible! I love you, Sonja! All of you! I want to be your slave forever."

 

She reached out and caressed his face with one of her charred hands. She had feared this would happen since the moment she first met him. The Other had transformed Judd into a vampire junkie, and turned her into his fix.

 

"I love you too, Judd. Kiss me."

 

She sat behind the wheel of the car for a long time, staring out into the dark on the other side of the windshield. Nothing had changed since the last time she'd been out here, disposing of Kitty.

 

She pressed her fingertips against her right cheek, and this time it held. Her fingers were healed and straight again as well. She readjusted her shades, opened the car door, and slid out from behind the wheel of the Caddy she'd bought off the lot, cash-in-hand.

 

Judd was in the trunk, divvied up into six garbage bags, just like Kitty. At least it'd been fast. Her hunger was so intense she drained him dry within seconds. He hadn't tried to fight when she buried her fangs in his throat, even though she hadn't the strength to trance him. Maybe part of him knew she was doing him a favor.

 

She dragged the bags out of the trunk and headed in the direction of the alligator calls. She'd have to leave New Orleans, maybe for good this time. Kitty might not have been missed, but Judd was another story.

 

Arlo was sure to mention his suspicions concerning his missing friend's weirdo new girlfriend to the authorities.

 

It was time to blow town and head for Merida, maybe pay Palmer a visit and check on how he and the baby were making out. Funny how she'd forgotten about him. Of all her human companions, he was the only one she'd come closest to truly loving. Before Judd, that is.

 

She hurled the sacks containing her lover's remains into the water and returned to the car. She tried not to hear the noise the gators made as they fought amongst themselves.

 

She climbed back into the car and slammed a cassette into the Caddy's tape deck. Lard's The Last Temptation of Reid thundered through the speakers, causing the steering wheel to vibrate under her hands. She wondered when the emptiness would go away, or at least be replaced by pain. Anything would be preferable to the nothing inside her.

 

I don't see why you had to go and kill him like that. We could have used a renfield. They do come in handy, now and then. Besides, he was kind of cute....

 

"Shut up and drive."

 

Part Two

 

One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do.

 

Two can be as bad as one, It's the loneliest number since the number one.

 

One,

 

- Harry Nilsson