His curiosity ended in a dark alley. She left the bags of food, then pulled him out by the arm. He heard people scurrying in the darkness.
"You’re feeding the homeless," he said quietly. She nodded. "Do you do this a lot?"
"Every night about this time."
He pulled her to a stop and stared at her. "Why?"
"Someone has to." When he opened his mouth to speak, she placed her hand over his lips. "I know all the arguments, Val. Why should they work when people like me are willing to feed them for free? You can’t save the world. Let someone else take care of them, etc. But I can’t do it. Every night when I come out here, I know they’re there and I know they’re in pain. One of the men, Martin, was at one time a prominent business owner who got sued and lost everything. His wife divorced him and took the kids. And since he had dropped out of high school and was fifty-six when he had to go bankrupt, no one would hire him. He worked for me in my store, but it wasn’t enough to support him and he didn’t want to take charity, so he slept in alleys. I wanted to give him a raise so badly, but if I did that, I’d have to give one to everyone and I can’t afford to pay every part-time employee in my store thirty thousand dollars a year."
"I wasn’t going to say anything about that, Tabitha," he said quietly. "I only wanted to tell you that your compassion for other people overwhelms me."
"Oh." She offered him a tenuous smile. "I’m just used to people condemning everything I do."
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. "I don’t condemn you, my lady. I only admire you."
Her smile turned full fledged and floored him. She squeezed his hand with hers, then did the most unexpected thing of all. She put her arm around his waist and started walking down the street with him.
Valerius felt so strange. He’d seen lovers do this for centuries, but had never had anyone do it with him. Hesitantly, he draped his arm over her shoulders and just let the warmth of her body and touch seep into him.
There were no words for what he felt right now. It was a very common thing they were doing. People shouldn’t touch so intimately in public. And yet he’d never known a better feeling than to have this odd woman by his side.
The breeze brushed strands of her hair over his hand. It was soft and light and brought images to his mind that he shouldn’t have of her wild in his bed. Untamed.
And it played havoc with his body.
They didn’t speak much as they walked through the dark city where the humans went about their business oblivious to the danger that was hanging over them. It was eerily peaceful.
It was a little after midnight when they made their way over to Toulouse Street. The Abyss wasn’t the typical New Orleans club scene. It was dark and far from inviting like most of the more touristy places that beckoned the mainstream inside.
Tabitha led him down a long alleyway that was narrow and a bit spooky in feel.
"Hey, Tabby," a tall, African-American man greeted her as he was checking the IDs of the couple in front of them. He was bald with tattoos marking every inch of exposed flesh… even his hands.
"Hi, Ty," Tabitha said. "How’s it going tonight?"
"Not bad," he said with a wink as he waved the couple in. "Who’s your friend?" he asked, raking Valerius with a frown.
"Val. He’s a friend of Ash and Simi’s, too."
"No shit?" Ty said before he extended his hand to Valerius. "Ty Gagne. Nice to meet you."
Valerius shook his hand. "You, too."
"You two have fun, and Tabby, no weapons tonight, deal?"
"Yeah, yeah, Ty. No bloodshed. Gotcha."
Once inside the club, Valerius was taken aback by the sea of black-garbed humans. It looked like a Dark-Hunter convention. It was extremely easy to pick out the tourists who had stumbled inadvertently into the club or maybe had been dared into it. There were more body piercings and tattoos than he’d ever seen in one room in his entire two thousand years of living.
Many of the regulars knew Tabitha on sight.
"Hi, Vlad," Tabitha said to one emaciated, tall man with skin so pale it was translucent. He wore a white ruffled shirt, blood-red velvet tuxedo jacket, and black slacks. His long, black hair hung around his gaunt face, and his eyes were covered by a pair of round, black sunglasses.
"Good evening, Tabitha," the man said, before he smiled to show Valerius a set of fangs. He saluted them with a brandy snifter that looked like it held blood. Valerius’s Dark-Hunter sense could tell it was red vodka. Vlad’s long, skinny fingers were covered with silver claws.
Valerius felt an urge to laugh and show the man his own set of real fangs, but refrained.
"Vlad is a fifteenth-century vampire," she told Valerius.
"Son to Vlad Tepes and named for my esteemed father," Vlad explained in a faked Transylvanian accent.
"Really?" Valerius said. "I find that fascinating since Vlad’s only son, Radu, was slain by the Turks when he was eighteen. Vlad’s only surviving child was a daughter, Esperetta, who now lives in Miami."
"Vlad" rolled his eyes. "Really, Tabitha, where do you find these people?"
Valerius did laugh as the fake vampire drifted off.
Tabitha joined him. "Seriously," she said, sobering. "Is there any truth to that bull you just spieled?"
He nodded. "Ask Ash. Retta’s husband was made into a Dark-Hunter around 1480, I believe, and she followed him over. Her husband is one of the few Dark-Hunters who will actually speak to me in a civil tone."
"Kewl!" Tabitha stepped back as another Goth princess walked between them.
She indicated a stairway with the tilt of her head. "There are three bars here and an area called the Library. Daimons are usually found lurking in the Library or the Sound bar. The other two are the Main bar and the Aphrodite bar. Oh, and I should probably warn you that Eros and Psyche tend to haunt the Aphrodite bar as well, so you might want to leave that to me in case they show up."
"Hey, Tabby!" a plump blonde said as she grabbed Tabitha in an overbearing hug. "You seen any vampires tonight?"
"Hi, Carly," she said, casting an amused look at Valerius. "Not tonight. Why?"
"Well, if you find one, send him my way. I’m ready to be bitten and made immortal."
Tabitha rolled her eyes. "I told you they can’t do that. It’s a Hollywood myth."
"Yeah, well, I wanna be mythitized. So if you find one, tell him I’m in the Library, waiting."
"Okay," she said with a nod. "I’ll do it."
Valerius rubbed his eyebrow as the blonde woman left them. "You know a lot of interesting people."
She laughed at him. "This from someone who takes orders from a man who’s been walking around for almost twelve thousand years, not to mention that you actually do know the daughter of Count Dracula. I don’t want to hear it from you, buddy."
She had a point with that.
"Could you relax?" She tugged his coat collar up before she untied and then started mussing his hair.
"What are you doing?"
"Trying to make you blend in. It would certainly help if you didn’t look like you were constipated right now."
"I beg your pardon?"
"C’mon," she said, brushing her hand against his lips as she tried to smooth them. "Stop curling your lip and looking like you’re afraid you’re going to catch something. It’s not like you can die or anything."
"You’re the one who should be worried."
She made a rude noise at him. "This from a man whose culture actually invented bulimia. Tell me, how many times did you visit the old vomitorium anyway?"
"We didn’t all do that, thank you."
"Yeah, right." She drifted off.
Valerius hastened his steps to catch up to her. The last thing he wanted was to be left alone with the strangeness of the people gathered in this place. Granted, they couldn’t hurt him, but they were disturbing nonetheless. He couldn’t imagine why Acheron preferred to "hang" at a place such as this. It was so loud that he couldn’t hear himself think. The lights played havoc with his eyesight, and the skeleton and bat decor…
It just wasn’t where he would spend his spare time if he had any choice in the matter.
But Tabitha blended in with an eerie kind of conformity. This was her environment. Her people and culture.
There was nothing stodgy about anyone here.
She led him toward the dance floor, where she was hailed by a woman with an extremely tall, electric blue mohawk.
Valerius watched in horror as Tabitha dashed across the floor to dance with the woman and what appeared to be a man dressed in shiny plastic that was held to his body by large silver buckles. The man’s eyes and lips were painted black and his hair looked as though it had never been brushed.
Tabitha didn’t seem to notice as she swayed to the loud, thrashing music. She was lovely.
She didn’t care who watched her. There was no such thing as decorum or rules that held her back.
She merely was.
And he loved her for that.
Laughing at something the man said, she swooped low to the floor, then came up with a limber rhythm that ignited more fantasies than he would have thought possible. Every masculine part of him was aware of her. Aware of the softness of her face, the way the lights made her skin luminescent.
The way her body moved like liquid to the pounding beat.
She looked at him then. The minute her blue eyes met his, his groin jerked with needful anticipation.
Smiling, she crooked a finger for him to join her.
Valerius actually took a step forward before he caught himself. Dancing wasn’t something he did in public. As a Roman, his father had thought it crass and lowly, and had forbidden all of them to partake of it. As a Dark-Hunter, he’d never thought to learn.
Unwilling to embarrass her before her friends, he stepped back.
Tabitha paused, then said something to the man and woman. She kissed the man on his cheek and hugged the woman, then joined him.
"Let me guess, Romans have no rhythm?"
"Not any that I wish to share."
She smiled even wider. "I would put that to the test, but having seen you dance, I…" Her voice trailed off as her gaze went past his shoulder.
Valerius turned his head to see what had her transfixed. He spied the Daimons instantly.
There were five of them.
And they were headed toward the exit with a small group of women.
Tabitha headed for the Daimons without thought until Valerius pulled her to a stop. "What are you doing?" she asked him indignantly.
"It’s a trap."
She frowned up at him. "What?"
There was a strange look on his face as he tightened his grip on her arm. "Can’t you feel it? Even without powers I sense this one."
"No and if we don’t go out there, they’re going to kill those people." She tried to twist her arm out of his grasp, but he held tight.
"Tabitha, listen to me. This isn’t right. Daimons are never that bold and they had to know I was in here."
He was right. It was too obvious. In this crowd Valerius stood out like sunshine in darkness. "What do you suggest we do, then? Just let the innocent die?"
"No. You stay here and I’ll go."
"Tabitha," he snapped at her, his black eyes burning into her. "I’m immortal. You’re not. Unless one of them is wielding an ax, they can’t hurt me much. Whatever they do to me, I will survive. You might not."
She wanted to argue with him, but she knew he was right. Not to mention she could feel inside that he was sincere. This wasn’t some macho move to prove himself superior to her.
He was concerned for her safety, and if he was worried about her, he wouldn’t be able to fight clear headedly.
"Okay," she said. "You go and I’ll try not to follow."
A tic worked in his jaw. "For my sake, please do more than try. Succeed." He released her and before she could blink, he was out of sight.
Valerius hurried through the crowd, after the Daimons. He paused at the entrance long enough to ask Ty to keep Tabitha in the bar for her own safety. He wasn’t sure if the man would help him with that or not, but if Ty could slow her down some, maybe it would give him enough time to kill the Daimons before she got there and endangered herself.
Leaving the bar, he hesitated on the street. The loud music still rang in his ears. But even so, he could sense the Daimons…
At the end of the block, he turned down Royal and headed in the direction that he was certain they had vanished. The Daimons were moving fast, drawing him into the darkness.
Unless he was mistaken, which was unlikely, there was a large group of them.
He slowed a bit as he approached St. Louis Street and turned onto it. He hadn’t gone far before he came upon a gate slightly ajar.
They were inside. Quiet and still.
Had they killed the humans already?
Pulling out a dagger and holding it so that the blade was in line with his forearm while the hilt rested lethally in his palm, he pushed the gate wider, taking care not to make a sound as he slipped inside the pitch-black courtyard.