My dearest Ariane,
Words cannot express how relieved I am to hear from you. Aintza and I were ready to cover your tracks, fully expecting a slip-up. When you disappeared without a trace, we feared the worst. I now see that my concerns were unwarranted and that you are very much the resourceful young vampire I took you to be.
Onto the most pressing matters, I must issue a word of warning. You must not, under any circumstances, write to your father. I do not believe that the Lancaster suspect you may have survived, however, the order of Gabriel has sent significant reinforcements to Louisiana following their disastrous assault. We believe your house to be under constant surveillance. Do send me a short message and I will make sure it reaches him safely.
As for that most potent blood that was given to you after your apparent demise at my hand, I was hoping you could have forgotten its very existence. I must beseech you, never to mention it to anyone. Forgive me, for I cannot say more.
I am pleased with your arrangement. A safe place to grow and prosper is exactly what you need now. It is what you should have received. Do be cautious, for overconfidence is always involved in our kind’s demise and pride will ever be our greatest sin.
Aintza is well and she has indeed made a full recovery. She mentioned that you defended her life at a risk to your own even though your freedom was at hand. I will be eternally grateful to you for this decision, and I am proud to call you my friend.
Please write often and let me know about your adventures. Use the same secured method.
Jimena de Cadiz.
The log cabin has grown quite a bit, I muse, as I stare at the massive four-poster bed at its center. The fire roars in the chimney with a flame that will never burn me. A cool wind brings the smell of wet earth through an open window.
Someone is knocking politely.
I stand up and go down the stairs to the house’s main room. I open the gate and stare outside. The small grass expanse that leads to the thorn forest lies empty.
A path opens before me. I follow it to a dense line of trees stretching on both sides as far as the eye can see. Thorny vines twist and mesh to form an impenetrable wall that looks more sculpted than grown. The knocks come from behind.
There is something familiar about the rhythm I cannot quite place. There is also nothing hostile about the invitation. If I were to compare it, it would be the same as a friend tugging on your sleeve to wake you up.
I want to get through.
The roots and trunks shiver then part before me with a deep rumble. An alley extends into the mists.
I stumble when I cross the threshold, but something helps me regain my balance. I move through the white fog for a few moments until I come across a small mound.
The air clears up and I am standing in a gorge. On both sides, sheer cliffs climb up beyond my sight while in front stands a most peculiar structure. It looks like someone carved a temple in the very rock. The architecture is blocky, massive and solemn. Styled lions stand guard at each side of a monumental entrance.
What I thought to be a mound turns out to be a tortoise of massive proportion. It spreads all over the path and is currently sleeping contentedly. The Choctaw shaman is perched atop its shell.
“Child of thorn and hunger. Curious home this is, no? You should visit.”
“Where is it?”
“Not where, when.”
The tortoise yawns and the mists close on me.
“Please miss, you gotta believe me!”
“I swear, I am not the person you are looking for.”
“Yes, you are Charles Bishop, charlatan, conman, and horse thief.”
“You got the wrong person miss, I never heard of this Bishop.”
“And yet you ride on a horse that was stolen from the Mitchell estate this very morning by a Charles Bishop, charlatan, conman, and horse thief, who happens to match your description.”
“That’s not right miss, you must have seen it wrong!”
“I found their brand on the beast’s leg.”
That was a lie, but it is indeed the right horse. I simply do love how Mr. Bishop’s face falls for half a second as he rebuilds a tale in his brain that will accommodate my solid evidence.
“Ah, I knew my kindness would play tricks on me! I met this man not three hours ago, he looked desperate. He wanted to sell me this horse so he could take a coach to Atlanta to visit his sick mother. And I, the fool, believed him! I did not tell you because I knew there was trouble. You gotta believe me, I am the victim in this sordid affair!”
Mesmerizing. He is spinning a tale and gauging my reaction at the very same time! Is this how people like him manipulate their audience, through constant adaptation? Truly, this man is an artist. It is no wonder that he could swindle old Margie Mitchell out of her pension.
“A famous tale Mr. Bishop. Now we shall play a little game. I will ask you questions and if you lie, I will break one of your fingers.”
I grab his bound hands in my own and free his index without much fuss.
“Let us start with a simple one. What is your name?”
“AAAAaaaagh. What is wrong with you! This is intolerable, an abuse of power. Guards, guards, anyone, help! I am being assaulted! You better let me go before I have you arrested for your heinous crimes! The law is on my side.”
The man swallows nervously. His eyes dart around my face, looking for hints of emotions. Hmm, perhaps I should stop smiling so much. It is at least fortunate that I had the presence of mind to hide my fangs.
“What. Is. Your. Name.”
“Miss you gotta believe me I’m telling the truth, I am the victim of an odious machination. My name really is Marcus…”
“Aaaaaa! FUCK! Aaaaaaahaha it hurts. Miss, please, have mercy. You’re a sharp lady aye, I can see that. I am indeed Charles Bishop,”
I was almost expecting him to double down!
“But I was telling you the truth! I am indeed the victim of an odious machination! Those Mitchell bastards are a bunch of heathens and faithless liars. I have done nothing as they say, they’re just slandering me because the truth is that Jeremy Mitchell…. Is my father!”
“Pffff Hohohohaha this is just too good. Oh my! Do these kinds of lies work on anyone?”
“I swear it on God…”
“AAAAaaaa JESUS! FUCK!”
“Tut tut tut, do not anger me by making false oaths, particularly on that name. You know this is an experiment, correct? I am just determining how many fingers it will take before you realize I can see through your lies.”
“Miss, miss, enough. Please!”
“I only asked for your name and we are already at three fingers. I hope you can do better in the future.”
I brush the top of the knee-high wheat with a gloved hand.
This is frustrating.
I had to drag Mr. Bishop half a mile into a deserted field while a man could have flashed his credentials and conducted the interrogation in a private room in the town hall. This is unfair. I even asked Loth for male clothes, but he said I had, and I quote, “an arse ta send ships across the Aegean” and that he “would not have innocent young lads question their sexuality every time ye cross the street.” Which I assume means crossdressing is off.
So here I am. Entertaining myself as best as I can, in the middle of a wheat field in the back end of Georgia while I could be doing it in a comfortable room, with the full authority of the citizen watch simply because my genitals do not happen to dangle around when I walk. This is a disgrace. I almost miss Vampire society and its ruthless equal treatment.
How should I proceed?
“Besides cash, what did you steal?”
A quick movement of the eye to the right, towards the town.
“So you did steal something.”
“No miss, please, you gotta believe me, I’m an honest man!”
“Charles dear, you are almost begging for it. You already admitted to lying not a minute ago. Do you ever realize that you are going too far?”
I watch, impressed, as Mr. Bishop spins an incredible tale of pain and misery for a whole minute. Tears flow from his eyes, and snot from his nostrils like unto the Niagara Falls. He is the very picture of despair and repentance. I just have to let him go, and after he buys medicine for his poor mother, he will lead the honest life he always craved. I try to look increasingly filled with pity as the story reaches its dramatic conclusion.
“Your poor family…”
“What caused your sister to go blind?”
“Charles, Charles, now you are making me angry. Don’t tell me you’ve never thought of that! Of course, people are going to be asking questions to challenge your claims! You need to be able to answer such basic inquiries on the spot or the lies will unravel. What a poor performance. Ah, what am I to do with you?"
“Anyway, onto the next question. Is what you stole in the horse’s saddle.”
“YES, YES DAMMIT YES, IT’S ALL THERE!”
“And the pension?”
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAA I DID NOT SAY ANYTHING!”
“You were thinking about it! You were licking your lips and calculating the odds! I am tired of this, you obviously cannot tell the truth to save your own miserable life! I broke six fingers! Six! How stupid can you be! Do not waste my time any further.”
“Yes, yes I will tell you.”
I grab the man’s hair with one hand and Jimena’s dagger with the other. I place the blade at the base of the orbit, just below the eyeball. He freezes.
“I will now ask one more time. If anything but the precise and complete answer to my question comes out of your mouth, I will push the knife in. And I do mean anything. You protest, you beg, whimper or lie and you lose that eye and I go to the next target. You don’t need any eyes, nor ears, nor fingers to tell me what I want to know. I will take them in precisely that order until I get what I want. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
“Where is the pension money?”
“I buried it in a burlap sack under the apple tree behind the inn. The one that's next to the shitter.”
I sheathe the dagger and go rummage into my backpack for what I stole from the inn.
“You’re probably here for the bounty aye? You could take everything and let me go, keep the pension for yourself. If someone asks, you never met me. Just untie me and I’ll be gone like the wind. You’ll never see me again and the pension money will be yours.”
“Charles, Charles, Charles… If I were to do as you ask and keep the pension for myself, why, pray tell, would I ever leave a witness?”
Mr. Bishop turns to a pleasant shade of grey. Oh, he is so ripe with fear and vitality! A few more minutes and I will be unable to resist.
“I may consider letting you go if you do a little thing for me. A very simple thing…”
“Yes, yes, please anything!”
Bishop yelps in surprise, and then in pain as I shove a brand-new candle between his bound hands. The look of incomprehension on his face as I use a match to light it is just precious.
“I just realized that tonight is my Birthday! Well, in a manner of speaking. I was not exactly born. Still, I simply must celebrate the occasion. I would just ask that you sing for me.”
“H… Haaaaappy Birthday t… to youuu.”
I sing along and only take my dagger out once, to encourage him to finish. When he is done, I clap and blow the candle. Only the light of the moon shines on us now.
“Good! And now I need a drink, for what is a party with nothing to drink? Would you help me get something nice?”
“Of… Of course! Drink as much as you like!”
“Why thank you!”
I grab him by the throat and bite down.
Several things have changed over the past six months. I can move faster and for longer periods of time. I can use the same energy to strengthen myself, although I find it much more difficult. I can also wrestle adult men without effort. The most valuable change, in my opinion, is that I can now stay awake for almost the entire night, though to be fair, the night lasts for nine hours in July.
It is only by living with Loth that I realize how little I can accomplish every day. With only a few hours of complete activity, every project takes a week to finish. I should not be surprised that Father Perry managed to catch up to me. In two days of intense riding, he easily went further than I had in one week.
Despite the short time I have at my disposal, I have managed to accomplish several things. I have assisted Loth in several hunts and I often help him with the finishing touches of delicate tasks. In return, I have learned to read several rune alphabets and although magic is beyond me, its understanding is not. I now comprehend the abilities of mages and the various tools at their disposal and I must say that I am incredibly lucky that those I faced were lone wolves. A cabal of them working together is a dangerous thing indeed.
When I am not working with Loth, I read and hunt bounties.
The Town we live in and its neighbors do not have a group dedicated to law enforcement. Lawbreakers are dealt with by groups of “concerned citizens” who can be prompt to dish out mob justice. When the perpetrator manages to escape immediate punishment, the mayor issues a bounty so that he, or in this case she, who brings them back are compensated for the loss of income. Being a bounty hunter is no easy task. When the judge and half the jury know the victim personally, the executioner has his work cut out for him and the fugitives know it.
Hence my arrangement with the good Mr. Partridge.
I knock on the reinforced wooden door.
I enter a soberly decorated living room. I do my best to ignore the ever-present Christian imagery and focus on the man in front of me. Michael Partridge is a stocky man with a greying beard and a single good eye. The undyed clothes he wears underline wiry muscles that age has not managed to tear down, although he is starting to sport a little belly.
“Miss Delaney, did you find him?”
Loth goes by Delaney, for now.
“Yes. I left him tied under the big chestnut tree, at the crossing between Jacksonville and the Holst farmstead.”
“Well done, I will pick him up tomorrow. The horse?”
“Tied up in front of the Fat Pig tavern.”
“And old Ms. Mitchell’s savings?”
“All here,” I answer as I place the loot on his table. “There is also a pair of silver candelabra and some cutlery. Hold on.”
I exit the house and return with a bag I pretend to struggle with. I was never weak, for a woman, but I am not built like a day laborer and silver can be rather heavy. Loth mentioned that humans are designed to notice inconsistencies as a survival mechanism, and so I am careful when dealing with people I do not intend to bite.
I deposit the heavy bag next to the first one.
“Good find. The Mitchells did not mention this. Could it be from another victim?”
“I doubt that he had the time. Perhaps old Lady Mitchell did not want to admit to being swindled and robbed blind. You know how ashamed people can be about being attacked as if it were their fault that they were targeted.”
Michael nods thoughtfully.
“Or perhaps she forgot, but yes, that is plausible. I remember thinking if I had dodged left instead of backward, that Hessian spear would never have... ah but listen to me rambling like an old man. Thank you miss Delaney. I will make sure Margaret knows how much you helped.”
“You must be discreet…”
“Of course, of course.”
I am about to leave but my host scratches his beard and gazes in the distance, a sure sign that something bothers him.
“Do tell, what is the cause of your uneasiness?”
The man sighs and massages his tired eyes.
“Would you care for a cup of tea?”
Even if I could drink it, I would refuse simply for that massive cross hanging above the table.
“It is late sir, and I should really be heading home.”
“Yes, and it is not even proper for me to ask, just as it is not proper... Ah, there is not a single proper thing to this whole madness. I am helping a lone woman apprehend dangerous criminals in the dead of night. This is insanity. You should be home in your bed at this hour, or better yet, in the bed of your husband.”
“And then who would have caught up with that Bishop fellow?”
“I don’t know! Phillips maybe, or the Mitchell brothers when they arrive! Not... you!”
“And do you believe they would have forced where he had buried his catch out of him if they found him at all?”
He is about to retort when the information registers. Curses I should have remained silent.
“What did you do to him?”
Way to go, Ariane.
“I just broke a few fingers...”
“Ah! I... I am sorry. This is wrong miss Delaney, just plain wrong.”
I need to act. If our agreement is broken it will make hunting outlaws much less rewarding.
“When you return old Mrs. Mitchell her life savings, look her in the eyes and tell her it is wrong, tell her it was not proper. We live in a lawless land Michael, and for Evil to triumph, it is enough that good people do nothing. If we both do not stand up to treachery, who will? If we must choose between propriety and Justice, I know that my heart will lean towards what will protect our people.”
Hum, I am laying it a little thick here.
“You... you are right miss Delaney. I have no right to object,” he says as a single tear rolls down in ruddy cheek, ”I only wish this bad leg of mine wouldn’t hold me back.”
Huh. It worked. He wipes his eyes and stares straight at me, nodding at my pretend determination to carry out the Law.
“I do not know why you were blessed with those skills even though you are of the fairer sex, but the Lord works in mysterious ways, and so long as we carry His will, that is all that matters. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and may He have mercy on Charles Bishop for we shall not.”
He stands up and grabs my hand, which he shakes with enthusiasm and leads me outside.
“Go home safe miss Delaney, sleep well and may God be with you. You did well tonight. I will leave the reward with your uncle.”
I walk back to Loth’s mansion. Hmmm, what just happened? Well, as long as I can keep hunting…