We all exit the Dupré House at the same time. We all head in different directions. Wolves. Vamps. Immortals. Humans with Tendencies.
As I step out into the chilly October air, a new scent invades my senses. It surrounds me, invades me, and I draw it in and taste it on my tongue.
It’s a fight. A big fight.
And it’s close.…
Damn, it’s almost funny to watch Eli with Riley these days. She has changed, yet…not. It’s almost like she was born to belong to Eli, born to become what she is now. Like it was her destiny or something. She was sick before. Now? It’s hard not to stare when she does…anything. It blows my mind to think there’s anything human left in her, but there is. And that’s why Eli won’t budge from her side. I don’t blame him. If she belonged to me, I’d do the same. And yeah—she hates when we say she belongs to him. Cracks my ass up, though. The one thing I don’t understand about her is her liking for Victorian Arcos. It’s fucking bizarre. I guess she has so much of his DNA inside of her? Who knows. What I do know is, you don’t fuck with Victorian. Not that he can’t handle himself. For such a pretty boy, he is tough as shit. But he has it bad for Riley, and if he doesn’t watch himself Eli will be all over him. Damn, that would be a fight worth taking bets on.
Eli can’t help but stare, and to me, it’s pretty funny to watch. I’d never met the woman, and I have to admit even I’ve never encountered such a soul before. From what we can see, Darling is beyond bizarre in all her dark, glorious three-hundred-plus pounds of splendor. She wears colorful beads woven in her hair by the dozens, and…plants? Eli bends his head to my ear as we cross the square. “She wears nothing but weeds?”
I elbow him in the ribs. “No, Dupré, not weeds. Palmetto fans. She’s woven them together for a dress. And don’t forget—she’s not just eccentric. She’s paranoid schizophrenic. Don’t antagonize her. And the dress? Come on, you’ve seen that before. You’ve lived here for centuries. And it’s the only thing she ever wears.” I lean in. “The only thing, might I repeat.”
Eli shudders. “I thought I’d banished it from my memory.”
I silently chuckle. Surrounded by no fewer than a dozen filled, handheld plastic bags, Darling claims the bench in LaFayette Square, talking to herself.
Or, maybe to the Marquis himself.
As we approach, I pull Eli back. “Let me go ahead. She might start yelling at you. No need for a scene.”
I narrow my eyes. “Oui.”
Eli stares hard. “I’m right behind you.”
With reluctance, Eli lets me walk ahead. I repeat. Lets me.
“Darling?” I say, stopping a few steps from the bench.
Darling jerks her head up, surprised by my appearance. She squints. “Who dat?”
“Preacher’s goddaughter. Riley Poe.”
“Preacher?” Darling said, laughing. “You all white, girl. Preacher Man, dat old cod is black as da night. You ain’t his kin. Go on.”
“I’m his goddaughter, Darling. Preacher and Estelle raised me and my brother after my mom was killed.” My voice lowers. “I slay vampires.”
“Hot damn, girl!” she exclaims. “Yeah, I remember you.” Black as coal, appearing to be in her mid-fifties, with cataracts clouding both eyes, Darling stares hard at me. Recognition sets in to match her words.
“Don’t say dat out loud, girl,” Darling says in a hushed whisper. “Damn. People tink you crazy.” She erupts into a cackled laugh.
Eli stands silent behind me. I’m surprised Darling hasn’t mentioned him yet. She probably doesn’t even see him.
“Darling, listen. I need your help.” I go down on one knee, closer to the woman, but nonthreatening. I hope, anyway. “Have you seen or heard anything about the bloodsuckers lately? Or about me?”
Grabbing one of the bags next to her, Darling begins rifling through it, searching for…something. Then, she stops and turns her head, away from me, as though someone sits down beside her. “What dat? No. I don’t like dat. No!”
I sit still. Eli doesn’t move a muscle.
Darling scrunches her features, looks in the direction of whomever she was speaking to in her mind. Finally, she sighs. “Fine. I do it.” She waves to me. “Tell dat big boy behind you to come here.”
I turn, meet Eli’s gaze, and incline my head. He eases up beside Darling.
Darling peers up at him through white, foggy eyes. “What you doin’ here, boy? You one of dem, ain’t ya?” She shakes her head, beads clacking together. “One of dem bloodsuckers. But you different, dat’s right.” She waves her hand at him. “Don’t matta. You here to watch over Preacher’s baby girl, don’t forget dat.” She reaches into her bag and tosses something at me. I catch it. It’s cool and flat, like a piece of metal.
The Gullah woman lowers her voice. “Girl, dere’s an evil place ’round here. People get took dere, but dey don’t want to go. You don’t want to go, either. It’s out in da water, and it’s a bad place.” She leans over, close. “Dere’s monsters dere. And bloodsuckers. Some dead. Some not dead. Some wish dey was dead.”
My insides chill at her words.
“Shush! Watch your mouth, girl. I ain’t done.” She cocks her head at Eli. “You listenin’ too, boy?”
Darling bursts into laughter. “Oui? What da hell does dat mean? You crazy, boy?”
She turns her head again, to the unknown soul whom she speaks to. “Oh,” she says to the air beside her. “Dat means yeah. Okay den.”
I share a puzzled look with Eli, then I shrug and turn my attention back to Darling.
The old Gullah continues. “Dey all hidin’ from you. Been hidin’ from you for a while now. Maybe ‘cause dey busy workin’ in da graveyard? Don’t know why. But soon dey gonna stop hidin’ and git you. You don’t wanna go wit dem. Dat one who was locked away in da ground for all dem years wit his brodder? He’s out. And he’s bad. The brodder ain’t so bad for a bloodsucker.” She points at Eli. “You watch dis hardheaded ting doh. Make sure dey don’t git her. Dat’s Preacher’s baby girl. She got dat special blood da vampires want. She sees dem. But dey see her, too.” She peers at Eli. “You don’t want her blood, do you boy? Preacher Man, he kill you good if you bother his baby.”
“No, ma’am,” Eli answers. “I’d never hurt her.”
Darling grunts her approval.
I rise. “Darling, if they—”
At that point, Darling has obviously experienced enough of me and Eli for the night. She tips her head back, beads jingling, opens her mouth, and yells as if being murdered. A high-pitched, bloodcurdling, banshee-type holler that makes my hair stand up.
I grab Eli by the hand. “Come on. She’s through with us now.”
Eli glances over his shoulder as we race from the square. As soon as we step onto the cobbles, Darling ceases her squalling.
I stare in her direction. Even from that distance, I see the whites of her teeth against her pitch-black skin as she smiles. “Bye-bye, Riley Poe!” she yells. “Watch your neck!”
“That’s scary,” Eli says.
“You ain’t kidding,” I answer, and stop under the next streetlamp. I open my palm and stare down at the object Darling gave me.
“What is it?” Eli asks.
I pull it closer. “It’s a flattened tourist penny,” I answer. “With Bonaventure Cemetery on the front.”
Eli looks at me. The shadows play across his face, and my heart leaps. “Looks like we’re headed back to the graveyard.”
“Let’s call the others,” I say. “And get the Jeep.”
No sooner have we reached Inksomnia to get the Jeep do I hear glass shatter from next door. A series of Dagala expletives fall onto the night, and in the next instant the door to SoHo Boutique—Bhing’s store—flies open. Bhing’s husband, Ronnie, carrying their toddler and followed by their older boy, comes running out into the alley. Inside SoHo, glass is breaking. It sounds like a tornado is going through the place. Ronnie runs straight toward me, speaking in high-gear Dagala.
“Whoa!” I say, holding up my hand. “English, Ronnie!”
As of yet I haven’t been bitten by a Dagala vampire, thus I cannot speak Dagala (except the few dirty words Bhing taught me). I stress the word “yet.” By now, anything’s possible, and I know it.
“Bhing! Something is wrong with her!” Ronnie says, breathless. He points to his eyes. “She’s no longer seeing me. She came after us, growling and trying to bite!” He looks over his shoulder. “She’s tearing up the shop!”
“Mommy’s bad,” the little toddler in Ronnie’s arms says, pointing.
“Help us!” Ronnie cries. “I’ve locked her in the bathroom. Downstairs.”
“Okay, okay, it’s going to be fine,” I say, and I pray it will be.
“Take them inside,” Eli says. “I’ll get Bhing.”
“She doesn’t really know you,” I say, trying to convince him that I need to get her.
“Trust me,” Eli says. “She doesn’t know anyone right now.”
I nod. “True.” Grasping Ronnie by the elbow, I give his older son a comforting smile and incline my head. “Come on. Eli here will take care of Bhing.”
Ronnie stops and looks up at Eli. “Don’t hurt her. Please.”
Eli nods. “I won’t. I promise.”
With that, Eli turns and heads toward SoHo. I hurry Ronnie and his sons into Inksomnia. Inside, I turn. “Go sit in there,” I say, pointing upstairs to my living quarters. “Shut the door and don’t open it until you hear it’s me. I’m going to help Eli.”