Blood. Her blood was everywhere. Everywhere.
Benj’s soul screamed in pain. His icy veneer broke apart and crushed together in a beautiful agony.
Sophie started up. Her heart beat, beat, beat in tune with his lust and anguish. All thought of the predator she hunted disappeared. The office closed in around her and Benj no longer held her.
Benj? Benj? He pressed himself against the far corner of the room with his knees pulled up to his shoulders. Over and over he ran his hands through his black and white hair. He rocked and groaned. A battle waged inside him. He fought a starved, desperate foe determined to retake his soul. Jack yelled into the phone. She heard the noise, his deep commands, but the words were lost in Benj’s dark desire and dread. She pushed away from Stan leaving red hand prints on his suit. Her legs trembled. Stan caught her.
“Let me go!” She pushed him away and started towards Benj. Stan fell back against the table surprised at her urgent strength.
Benj pulled himself up the wall and held out his hand.
“Stay away,” he said in a broken voice.
Sophie saw only mirrored confusion in the stunned faces of the policemen. She could not understand Benj’s order. He wanted her. He pulled her towards him, drew her, desired her.
“It’s your blood! It’s making him crazy.” Stan grabbed her and pulled her back.
Her hands. She looked down at her own two hands dripping blood on the carpet. The drops rested for a moment like rubies on a gray field before sinking into the threads.
“Benj, you can drink my blood.” Something compelled her to say it. She held out her palms.
The thought came from him. His desires filled her, pulsed in her, and pushed all her personal identity away.
“No!” he croaked, fangs extended, moving down the wall away from her. “Once I taste its purity, its magic, I will go mad with desire until I consume you.”
Regaining herself, Sophie shrank away from him.
“Get her out of here!” Jack ordered pointing at the door. “Now!”
Stan scooped Sophie up and ran from the room. She sat in his arms without protesting, stunned. As they exited, everyone else move. Conway overtook Stan and led him outside to an unmarked car. The connection between Benj and Sophie strained with the mixed desires of the vampire bringing a cold sweat to Sophie’s skin. She shook in Stan’s arms.
She wanted to scream.
She wanted to run away, far away.
She wanted to go back and give her life to him. He wanted her, but not as his wife. He wanted to consume her, slay her, take her. Fear and self-loathing mixed with the lust. Death would provide the only escape from such an internal battle – little help for a vampire who could not die.
Conway drove away from the police station, and Stan held Sophie close. The distance and speed of the car meant nothing to a vampire. If he broke, he would come. The only thing protecting Sophie was Benj’s self-control, weakening self-control. She pressed her face against Stan’s jacket. The pain inside the Benj who loved her, not the monster sitting in the small gray office, sheered through her like a giant spike. She clenched her hands around the blood which threatened to damn him. Please, Benj. Please hold on.
With Sophie gone, Jack hauled Benj away from the blood on the floor to a holding room down the hall. Benj warred against his lust. He fought tooth and nail, heart and soul, against the side of him black and strong. He fought against the lust he once welcomed into himself but now despised. He fought for Sophie. He would not take her. Not now, not ever. Never Sophie.
Her smell faded. Her blood sang less loudly. Benj pushed back. Frost laced over the blackness. It hardened and thickened over the monster he was inside until he gained the upper hand. Finding his feet, he paced the floor, back and forth, back and forth, feeding off Sophie’s agitation. His hair stuck up and out as he pulled at it. His long legs ate up the floor space in two steps. Back and forth. Jack sent Morry and Lyons after Sophie to the house and the Chief Brown went home to his family, waiting for reports.
West and Guinness threw the door open, filling the dark night with light as Stan hurried up with Sophie in his arms. Guinness took her. West stroked her hair making hushing noises. The familiar feel of friends pressed around her calmed her down. She wiped her face as Guinness carried her down the hall. Conway, Morry and Lyons filed in behind Stan who collected hats and coats just to keep his hands busy.
“JC took him some blood, he’ll be okay,” Guinness assured her, holding her close. “JC will help him.”
As Sophie calmed, Benj calmed giving room for Sophie to calm some more. They spiraled down emotionally, each helping the other. Sophie took a stuttering breath. Guinness set her in one of the barstools, and West fetched the first-aid kit to clean and bandage her hands. After fixing Sophie up, West put on a pot of coffee and set food out. Everyone gathered around the bar. Sophie gave Stan a faint smile of thanks as he sat in the stool next to her. No one suggested sleep, there was still too much to talk about. And no one was going anywhere until Jack, JC and Benj got home. West insisted Sophie eat something, but she picked at her favorite cereal, hardly noticing the soggy flakes and plump raisins. She raised the spoon halfway to her mouth when the front door opened.
A small cry escaped her lips. Benj stood in the door way, his shirt open at the neck, his salvation and vampire tattoo just visible, his coat over his arm. His eyes glowed red in the dark. JC and Jack came in behind him. In less than a human heartbeat, Benj shifted across the room and pulled Sophie into his arms. He pressed his face to her neck and hair, just resting in her closeness, her warmth. She clung to him. Tears spilled down her face and wash onto his skin. His cold body warmed as he held her and whispered her name. Gathering themselves together, resting back inside one another’s souls, Sophie turned to everyone. Eyes glanced everywhere but at them. Awkward silence filled the room.
“We all okay?” Jack asked.
Benj, his face still pressed to Sophie’s neck, nodded. Sophie sniffled, her eyes glistening.
“So now what?” Conway leaned on the counter. Morry rolled up his shirt sleeves. Lyons and Stan attacked a bowl of chips and dip West set out.
“I need to talk to Emma,” Sophie whispered.
Benj released her with a kiss and went to his fridge. He put four blood bags in a bowl of water and set it on the stove. Morry and Lyons watched, unsure if they needed to arrest him or if it was impolite to watch a vampire feed.
“Don’t worry,” Stan said, grinning at their consternation. “It’s all bad blood.”
The detectives did not look less worried.
Stan turned to Sophie. “Who’s Emma?”
Before Sophie could answer, Guinness stood up. “I’ll go get her while you explain. It may take a while, it’s awfully late.” He grabbed his leather bomber, the Buick car keys from JC, and hurried out the door after giving West a quick kiss.
“Is that old hag still alive?” Conway said. He scooped up a chip full of salsa and stuck the whole thing in his mouth.
“And she will continue to be long after you have died, Conway,” Benj said.
He kicked Stan down one stool and sat next to Sophie, blood bags in hand. Morry and Lyons watched in hypnotic horror as he sank his fangs into one of the bags and drained it dry. Another appeared in his hand before they realized he had thrown the other one away. In mere seconds all four bags were gone. Benj sat up straighter. A shiver ran up and down his body. He shook his head with a crazy laugh as his red eyes deepened.
“You should observer your faces,” he said.
“Every nerve in my body says I should pull my piece and shoot you.” Lyons ran his hands over his bristling hair to give himself something to do other than shoot his new ally.
“A natural defense mechanism, my friend, built in to help keep you from becoming my dinner. But I must inform you that your gun would not stop me.”
“Garlic and silver, right?” Morry said.
“Can someone answer my question?” Stan interrupted.
They all turned to him. “Who is Emma? Is she a vampire?”
“She’s a witch,” Jack said.
West nodded in agreement. “Not like Sophie though. She comes from a different school of thought. She’s the typical fairytale witch – ugly and smelly and weird things hidden in pockets. But she doesn’t eat children.”
“You say these things only because you cannot see her TrueSelf.” Benj said. “Only other magical beings and those she chooses to show can see what she truly looks like. As Sophie gets older she will begin to hide herself more and more from the world as well to avoid questions of eternal youth.”
“Have you seen her true self?” West asked.
A streak of embarrassed passion flashed through Benj. Sophie twitched at the surprising emotion. West raised an eyebrow at her. Everyone stopped their snacking and shuffling to stare at the vampire and the SoulReader.
“Why did you think she was a vampire?” Benj asked Stan changing the subject.
Sophie laughed inside where only Benj could hear. It always made her laugh when she had a moment of clarity reminding her of how much older and how much more of life Benj had experienced. And the other woman he had ‘experienced’. A wave of frustration flowed from Benj. She put her hand over her mouth to hide a smile even though she knew he could feel her laughter. It explained a lot. Sophie wondered why she had never noticed the emotional connection between Benj and Emma in the past. The feelings did seem to suggest an old relationship, long over, and long soaked in friendship instead of passion. Sophie loved Emma. She would not fault Benj for having loved her in the past long before she was born. Now, at least she knew why Benj had taken her to Emma when they first discovered her power to Read, and why Benj had Emma’s tattoo on his arm.
“You said she would live long after we died,” Stan explained.
“No, she is not a vampire. We are the forever undead. We are eternal because we are already dead. We did not vanquish death; we are death’s slaves. There are other beings that are very long lived. They are alive, they live on this plane and the other and have not passed death’s gate yet. When they do they will go to heaven or hell just like the rest of the living.”
“So she’s also a witch?” Stan tried to clarify.
“Yes. She understands a lot about the spirit world because her magic is tied, as all magic is, to that plane,” Sophie said. “She helped me understand about my own form of magic. She has also helped some of the vampires build systems to stay alive and resist the thirst. More importantly she lives in Sweet Grass in a shop she owns. I’m hoping she can help me strengthen the link with Cora, so I can have the power to attack her killer.”
Before anyone could ask more questions, Sophie turned to Jack. “When they get back I need Guinness to get with Cora’s parents. I don’t know how long my link with her will last. I would like them to be able to say goodbye as soon as we can.”
“We’ll be contacting them soon,” Morry responded before Jack. “They’ll be coming down to the station. You can see them then.”
Sophie’s gut wrenched. Cora’s parents had not yet been told their daughter’s mutilated body had been found.
“Will they have to view the body?”
Morry, Lyons and Conway all sighed and slumped at the same time.
“Thankfully no,” Conway said.
“How horrible this all is,” West whispered.
Sophie knew the thoughts going through West’s mind – how close had her parents come to going to the station instead of the hospital like they had. She reached over and took West’s hand, squeezing it.
“God spare us,” JC said.
The front door opened. Eight people craned their necks to see who came in without knocking. Several guns pointed at a little woman who stood in the doorway. Sheets of linen layered and layered around her until she appeared a shrunken fabric pile. A hump twisted up out of her back. It forced her to look down at the ground beneath her feet. She could not lift her head higher than her shoulders. Sophie wondered just what this ugly witch’s TrueSelf looked like. Even while helping her, Emma had always stayed in this form. She must be beautiful for Benj to have loved her like his feelings suggested. He reached over and put his arm around her pressing his face to her hair and inhaling.
“It is you I love,” he whispered. Sophie knew the truth. She could sense everything he sensed. She was his one true love over all the women who had come before her, even this powerful, beautiful one.
Emma shuffled into the room and all the men stood. She moved to Sophie without a greeting to anyone. Any feelings she might have had for Benj were invisible. With Sophie sitting on the barstool, Emma only came up to her lap. She lifted two knobby hands and rested them on Sophie’s slim knees. Emma cocked her head and her dirty hair fell to one side of her face. She pierced Benj with one black eye.
“Still haunting the land of the living, Undead?”
“I serve the SoulReader for always, Emma.” He bowed and stepped back from Sophie.
Emma harrumphed. She turned her head the other way uncovering a bright blue eye which she focused on Sophie. She reached out with her stained fingers. Sophie bent down to her old teacher, taking in the smell of Emma, the soft, warm, flaxen smell. Cupping Sophie’s head in her hands, singing softly, Emma pulled her closer. She touched her forehead to Sophie’s. A soft song spread around Sophie’s shoulders like a blanket. Releasing her head, Emma rocked back. She squatted down on the floor, sitting in silence with her blue eye trained on Sophie. After studying her for five exact minutes, Emma stood. She reached up with suddenly long arms and set her hands on Sophie’s shoulder. From her fingers the sand of an unexplored beach trickled down over Sophie and disappeared before it sprinkled the floor. Emma sang to herself again, running her hands down Sophie’s arms and then onto her stomach.
Emma stopped. She flipped her hair and shot a glance from her black eye at Benj. She flipped back and continued to probe Sophie with the blue one. She moved her hands down to Sophie’s thighs, resting them there for a moment, and then ran them down her legs. She pulled off Sophie’s little heels and rested her hands on the soles of Sophie’s feet. Her fingers tickled but Sophie stayed still, waiting. Emma’s song crescendoed and stopped.
“What have you found, child? What does this mean? And yet, it explains much,” Emma whispered.
She stepped back and closed her eyes. The silence grew heavy as they all watched the witch. Emma’s breathing slowed and her eyelids fluttered. The witch slept and dreamed.
“Another with your power walks.” They all jumped as she started talking. “One of you should not be. He has trapped the lost soul of the little girl who should not have been trapped. We thought this was your world, though we did not understand your weak powers. We were wrong. You are his echo.”
Sophie started. Benj growled deep inside.
“What does that mean?” he asked.
The vampire stood as still as the frozen lake deep inside him. Frozen solid, but swirling currents ran deep under the ice. Sophie felt them all. Dread flowed under the ice.
“He is first. He is older. Not by much, moments only. The gift was broken when it was given,” Emma said. “Broken I think for the good, but your powers are the weaker, SoulEcho.” Emma renamed Sophie’s powers.
“I don’t understand,” Sophie said.
She drummed her fingers on her thigh in a silent rhythm, a silent plea for the nightmares to end.
“Neither do we. But your fate is bound to him, has always been bound to him. You were always meant to counter act him. I sense it now. I always sensed it, but I never knew what it was until this moment. You Benjamin, your kiss, those are the true gifts, the true powers you have, SoulEcho. This witch, this true witch, he twists his gift. He lives to touch the wounded souls as he’s ripping them apart. You took one of those souls. You helped the soul. He wants you. He’s trained. He’s the true one. He’s stronger than you. You cannot best him by your powers.”
“But if I’m his echo, shouldn’t I be able to sense him, link with him by myself? Shouldn’t I be able to find him and lead the police to him?” Sophie said. The silent song she absent-mindedly played increased in tempo regulated by the metronome of her heart.
“Dear child, I don’t know… This is new to me, and I sense a quivering in the doors between our plane and the Spirit Plane. I sense new magic on the horizon of time and something beyond that.”
“What do we need to do?” Jack asked.
Emma flicked her hair over and looked at him with her one black eye. She smiled.
“Jack, you’re on point.”
Emma returned her gaze with the blue eye to Sophie. “I think you’re right, Sophie. You should have been able to maintain a link with him. But you are tied more strongly to this Material Plane than the Spiritual one from which you draw your powers. My thought is he already knows what you are. We are stumbling in the dark, not him. The soul of a girl who should have gone onto the plane Beyond the Spirit is trapped here. He did this to hindered you. But, your link to his victim will open the door for you which he tried to shut by trapping her here. You must learn how to use your part of this gift well. But…to do it you must have her blood mixed with yours.”
“How do I get her blood mixed with mine? She’s dead?” Gruesome images flooded her mind. Benj laid a hand on her shoulder and whispered in the forest of her core. Sophie’s heart calmed and her hands still.
“Her parents come in great sorrow. They need release. You go to open the door of goodbye for them.” Emma tilted her head side to side, back and forth, black and blue. She sang and tears ran down her face. “You share a link, the most powerful of links, with a vampire. The only question is, are you willing?”
“Willing?” Sophie leaned forward. “Willing to do what?”
Emma stopped tilting her head. Her hair slipped to one side. Her black eye peered out at them filled with grief, looking not at Sophie but at Benj. Confusion showed on all their faces but hers and his.
“No. I absolutely will not.” Benj stepped back from the witch.
“Then you will watch her die and you will not catch this killer.”
“What?” JC said.
“Emma, there must be another way,” Benj said, almost pleading.
“No! You are the connector. There is no other way. Great magic requires great sacrifice. All the stories tell us this.”
Emma stamped her foot once and turned her back to them. She mumbled words and drew lines in the air with her hand. From deep inside her linen robes she drew out a handful of silver powder and a rose petal. Benj shook his head. Waves of dread broke through the ice inside. A strange weakness filled Sophie’s limbs. She pressed her hands together as they rested in her lap. Emma turned back.
“Please, vampire, you must make this sacrifice or he will win and many more will die. This is your path.”
“To destroy the one I love?” Benj said. “To damn myself further?”
“Many new things come from your love. More than you know. Your heart is still tended by the King. You still wear his tattoo. You will choose in the end cause there’s no other choice to make.”
Emma bowed and backed out making the sign of blessing as she sprinkled the dust in the doorway. Silence stayed in her place. They stayed around the bar as she left, each trapped in their own troubled thoughts.
“I – ” Stan cleared his throat. “I don’t understand.”
“Where is Guinness?” West asked.
“Isn’t he taking Emma home?” JC said.
“Not like him to sit in the car and wait for her,” Jack muttered.
Sophie glance up at the clock over the sink. Only thirty minutes had passed since she had brought up Emma, and Emma had come and gone. A chill rushed over her and brought Benj out of his prophecy filled trance.
“What is it?” He shifted in front of her and searched her face.
“Find Guinness!” Panic doused Sophie.
Jack stared at her and then at the two detectives who grabbed for West’s phone.
“What direction would he have gone?” Morry asked while Lyons called the station and ordered patrol cars out to look for him.
“What is it, Sophie?” JC said.
“The time…” Sophie turned to West. “The time.”
The blood drained from JC face. West put a trembling hand up to her mouth. A soft mewing came from the depths of her soul. JC hurried over to her.
“What is it?” Stan asked.
“It would have taken Guinness thirty minutes just to get to Emma’s shop,” JC said. “Then he would have had to get her up, explain and drive back. Emma’s come and gone and he’s not here.”
“Well, maybe she sensed you needed to talk with her and Guinness is knocking on her door right now,” Conway said.
“No. Something’s wrong.” West shook her head over and over. Tears streaked the make-up on her face. “I feel it.”
Sophie screamed. The room spun around her. The lights faded…