Hayden stood in the entryway of her apartment, keys in hand. Leilan flashed her a sheepish smile. Amber, on the other hand, exhibited no such guilt. The two of them were seated at the tiny square table she’d pushed into a corner of the tiny square kitchen. She’d concluded her dining needs were a thing of the past.
Apparently she’d been wrong.
“I told you you’d find something.” Turning to Leilan, Amber added by way of explanation. “She went back to the place she used to live when she was a kid. Which by the way was my idea. She’s looking for her mother.”
It was all Hayden could do not to roll her eyes. Or take hold of Amber’s leather jacket and usher the girl out of the apartment before she could say anything else. Granted, she couldn’t totally blame her. She’d told Amber too much—another lapse. There were so many she was starting to lose count.
“Do you two know each other?”
Hayden couldn’t imagine how they might, but from the twin mugs of tea on the table it looked like they’d been there a while. She didn’t want to contemplate how they’d gotten inside. Or maybe she did. "I left this place locked,” she said, resisting the urge to lay her hand over the box underneath her coat.
Amber studied the vinyl tablecloth. Leilan’s gaze didn’t waver but he didn’t look particularly at ease either. Hayden couldn’t help feeling like the parent who returns home early for the weekend and puts an end to the fun.
“I’m not angry,” she said, realizing it was true. “I’d just like to know how you guys got in.
Amber looked up. “I brought over the blacklights, like you asked me to, but when I got here you weren’t home. Jaimie—he’s the guy who lived here before you moved in—gave me a key. In case there was an emergency or something. Anyway, I figured you wouldn’t mind if I, uh, let myself in and just left them on the counter.”
Beneath a thick sheen of foundation, Amber blushed to her roots. Hayden wondered how old Jaimie was. Somehow she didn’t think he’d been all that worried about emergencies. “And you’re still here—why?”
“That’s my fault,” Leilan said quickly. “Amber was on her way out just as I was on my way to your place. Since the door was already open I asked if she’d mind waiting inside with me. I wasn’t sure how long you’d be and I—
“We didn’t want you to think we were snooping,” Amber finished for him, casting a hopeful glance in Hayden’s direction. “Sorry, I know you’re probably pissed. I would be too.”
As if the two of them couldn’t do all the snooping they wanted together. Not that she believed they had. From their guilty expressions, it was obvious they realized they’d overstepped their bounds.
“Okay.” She fixed what she hoped was a stern gaze on Amber. “But you have to promise me you won’t do it again. Understood?”
Amber nodded. “Understood.”
Hayden held out an upturned palm. “Just in case,” she said, “how about you hand over that key?”
After a slight hesitation, the girl reached into her jacket and pulled out the key. Dutifully, she handed it over. “You sure you don’t want me to keep it—for emergencies.”
“I’m sure.” She deposited the key into her own jacket and turned toward Leilan. “And you should know better.”
“I should.” No apology. As usual, she thought, wondering why she’d expected one.
Amber rose from the table and made an elaborate display of checking her phone. “Wow, I didn’t realize how late it is. I’ve got to head out or I’ll be late to the club.”
“Good idea,” Hayden said evenly.
A look of relief flickered across Amber’s face as she bolted for the door. The girl cast a final glance at Leilan, her eyes full of sympathy for him. “I’ll check in tomorrow. You can bring me up to speed then.”
Hayden meant to inform her she would do no such thing. Instead she said, “See you then.”
Amber stifled a smile and hurried out, slamming the door behind her.
Leilan raised an eyebrow. “New bff?”
“It would seem so,” she said. “You two certainly seemed to hit it off.”
“How old is she?”
“She doesn’t look nineteen.”
“Okay, seventeen,” Hayden said. “Whatever.”
He didn’t respond immediately. “Are you sure you want to take something like that on right now?”
She sighed and sat down across from him. “No,” she said. “I’m not sure. But I seem to be taking on a lot of things I’m not sure about lately. I feel like everything’s spiraling out of control and my emotions—they’re all over the place. Do you know I actually cried this morning. I couldn’t even tell you why. I’d say I’m hormonal except I'm pretty sure vampires don't have hormones.”
“They don’t,” said Leilan. “But what you’re experiencing is consistent with what’s happened to you. I’d be more worried if you weren’t experiencing any changes.”
She doubted he was worried at all. “Why are you here, Leilan?”
“What if I told you I missed you?”
“Then I’d tell you you were full of shit.”
“Ah,” he said, “I’d forgotten about your colorful use of language.”
Hayden grinned. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Wonderful. Though if I were you I’d work on reigning it in just a bit. You’ve got to set an example for the girl.”
“Somehow I get the idea the girl has heard the work fuck before.”
“All the more reason for you to not to use it.”
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
Leilan took a sip of his tea. “Can’t you guess?”
“You brought more blood?” she asked, wondering if he’d noticed how low her supply was. Hopefully he’d been too worried about Amber to pay much attention to contents—or lack thereof—of her refrigerator.
“Still in the bag. I didn’t want your friend to get too curious.”
“Good idea.” Maybe he hadn’t noticed after all. She fought the urge to push herself back from the table and make a dash for the refrigerator.
Leilan was watching her closely. “You didn’t take my advice.”
No point in acting like she didn’t know what he was talking about. “You don’t know what it’s like,” she said. “You have no idea how strong the cravings—
“Excuses won’t keep you alive.”
“In case you've forgotten,” she said, “I’m not alive. Actually.”
His eyes bored into her. “You’re more alive than you realize. You more than anyone should understand that what humans think of as an absolute division is something far more complex.”
“I died, Leilan. That’s pretty black and white.”
“You died and yet here you sit before me, making a feeble attempt to seem as if your only concern isn’t how to get rid of me so you can get your fix. You feel desire—you want. You make choices, you act, you experience empathy, love, even hatred. Your existence is rich with possibility and yet you see none of that.” His voice was tinged with anger and something else. Envy? Disdain?
Hayden leaned across the table, close enough so that she could feel the heat emanating from him. “And you don’t—feel things?”
He didn’t answer.
“Is that why you left the woman to die in the street?” she pressed, unwilling to let it go. “Because you didn’t give a damn.”
A muscle worked in his jaw. “Why I left her is none of your business.”
His harsh tone cut her to the core. Why did she keep making men into something they weren’t? Again and again, they’d betrayed her. Leilan wasn’t any different than Valentin, who in turn was a reflection of her father. They’d all put their own interests first, used her to further their own goals. None of them had ever been there for her when she needed them.
Hayden pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. “Well then don’t waste any time explaining it to me. I’d love for you to stay but I’ve got a fridge full of blood to devour, if you don’t mind.”
He got up as well. “I wouldn’t think of interfering,” he said. “Try to make it last more than four days this time.”
She hated him. Hated the way he acted like she was some kind of junkie who had no control over her addiction. Isn’t it the truth?
Even worse, she swallowed the snarky comment she wanted to make. If he got angry enough, would he stop helping her? Say what you really mean, a part of her insisted. It was a part of her she didn’t want to listen to, a part that represented everything in her that was ugly and weak. “I will,” she said, forcing herself to keep her voice low. “I’m sorry I—
He moved closer to her and laid his hands on her shoulders. “Don’t.”
She tried to ignore her racing pulse. “Don’t what?”
“I’d rather have you shouting at me—or swearing—than playing some kind of role to get what you want. I’m long past the point when flattery has any effect on me. I know it’s tough—the first few weeks are the worst. If you can hold off, even a little, for the next few days it will get easier a lot faster. And you’ll be able to go out during the day sooner too.”
When he removed his hands she felt as if were coming up for air. She wasn’t sure what she felt for him, only that she felt something. Maybe it was part of the transformation—part of the intensity that kept sneaking up on her. “I can go out during the day?”
He laughed. “Not all the vampire stories you read are true. Most aren’t, as a matter of fact. Yes, you’ll be able to go out. You may not want to—most vampires prefer the night. But if you need to, you can expose yourself to the light for short periods of time. I wouldn’t recommend booking any trips to the Caribbean, but you don’t need to spend eternity cooped up in a dark apartment reading novels by black light.”
Hayden couldn’t help smiling at the image, despite the fact that she was still angry at him. “Amber will be disappointed.”
“Amber will deal.”
In the dim light, the gold in his hair shone. His tan was darker too, as if he’d spent the past few days outside. “How do you know so much about vampires?”
“Let’s just say my sources are pretty reliable.”
“It doesn’t matter who they are. What matters is that you understand the more you can ration the blood, the better off you’ll be. If you find you can’t, er, control it, call up Amber and get her over here. Though I get the feeling you won’t have to do much calling. Or go someplace public, someplace life will distract you.”
“The entire city’s a distraction.”
“Then it shouldn’t be a problem, to avoid overindulgence.”
“Right.” She smiled tentatively. She wasn’t convinced and Leilan sure as hell wasn’t.
He sighed. “If you’re really in a bind, you can call me.”
“I don’t have your number.”
Leilan reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an embossed card. “Now you do.”
It wasn’t until he’d left the apartment that she walked over to her desk and held it under the lamp. An illustration of an eye etched in silver with a green pupil at its center stared up at her. Below it, his name appeared in the same silver ink.
Order of the Shinar
At the very bottom of the card was a number with a New Orleans exchange. She couldn’t tell if it was a cell phone number or a landline but she wasn’t sure it mattered.
What the hell was the Order of the Shinar?
She traced her thumb over the surface of the card, wondering what Google would have to tell her about the order. She recognized the symbol from her mother’s shop but couldn’t quite remember what it meant. Something to do with an “evil eye,” but other than that she was drawing a blank.
But she still hadn’t opened the box. The Order of the Shinar would have to wait.
She unzipped her jacket and pulled it out, setting it down before her. The intricate engravings were tarnished and difficult to make out. The lock, rusted with age, didn’t look as if it would be all that difficult to break. All she needed was a hammer.
She didn’t have a hammer. Would Amber have one?
She dismissed the idea outright. Amber wouldn’t be back for hours and Hayden didn’t plan on waiting that long. Anyway, her request would only set off a new round of questions. She looked around the room, her gaze moving from the living room to the kitchen and bac. The place had come already furnished, so there had to be something she could use to break the lock. Crossing toward the kitchen, she started pulling open drawers.
It look her five minutes to find the meat tenderizer. Not as good as a hammer but it would suffice. She set the box down onto the edge of the counter, holding it steady with her left hand as she brought the blunt end of the tenderizer down onto the lock with all her might.
The lock came apart at once.
Apparently another benefit of being a vampire was that breaking locks was a lot easier. She pulled the remaining piece of the lock out of its slot and retrieved the part that had fallen onto the floor. There was a fairly deep dent in the linoleum where it had embedded itself, but she managed to extricate the piece fairly quickly.
She’d really have to watch herself. If she kept at it she’d lose her security deposit. Lifting the box off the counter she returned to the desk and trained the light onto it. She laid both hands onto the box and prepared to lift the cover then stopped.
What was it about opening locked boxes that gave her the creeps? She felt like Pandora, poised to loose a flurry of ills into the world.
Stop being over-dramatic, she told herself firmly. It was just a box. As for loosing any ills onto mankind, there wasn’t much else that she could do on that front. Mankind was about as corrupt as it could get without her help.
She lifted the lid an inch or so and peered inside.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” she muttered aloud, flinging the cover all the way open and leaning closer to get a better look at the contents.
The first thing she saw was the letter. It lay on top of the other objects, a small, cream-colored sheet of paper, folding in half. Below it was a silver necklace with some type of pendant attached to it and several pages of tracing paper filled with what appeared to be sketches.
She lifted the letter out of the box and opened it, ignoring the sharp pang of disappointment that cut through her when she saw it wasn’t addressed to her. Why had she thought her mother would finally explain, after so many years of deception? It was dated a year after her birth, to the day.
There’s nothing to fear. They may not approve of the choices I’ve made but it’s no longer within their power to prevent me from taking the necessary steps. You said the other night you blame yourself for what’s happened. You couldn’t be more wrong, Gigi. If anyone is to blame, it’s me. I was the one who pursued you, despite their warnings. I can’t be sorry about our child, nor should you. There is nothing I wanted more than to bring our child into this world. My only regret is that you had so little faith in me. Had you not hidden the truth from me for so long, perhaps we should already be together. But know the truth at last makes me even more certain that I can’t turn back from the path I’m now following, the path I discovered the day I met you leaving Tremblay’s lecture. Our child makes all I’ve been trying to do even more important. You must see that, whatever your reservations.
Don’t be angry, my love. I know you’ll forgive me once you’ve had time to understand I have little choice, not if I want to go on living as a man and a father. One last word of advice before I go—if you don’t hear from me within a month or so, don’t be afraid to go to Jeremy. Despite all I’ve said about him, he is perhaps the only one who can protect you until I return. However self-interested his intentions toward you might be, he won’t betray you or your child to anyone. He cares for you too much.
Hayden reread the letter once more before setting it onto the desk. She’d read it again soon enough but at the moment she didn’t want to see the jagged cursive that must have belonged to her father.
How many nights had she spent conjuring up names as a child? Surely, Michael must have been among them—it wasn’t an uncommon name—and yet she had no recollection of it. So strange after all these years to learn something of her father. Granted, it raised more questions than it answered. Who were the they he’d referred to? His family? And who was Jeremy? The letter implied he too had feelings for her mother but who was he exactly? And what on earth had her mother been doing attending a lecture? The Destiny Farrell she’d known had been a voracious reader, it was true, but she’d never said a word about college. As far as Hayden knew her mother had dropped out of high school during her senior year, shortly after she learned she was pregnant with Hayden.
Her father, Destiny had always told her, skipped town shortly after he learned of her existence.
Not technically a lie. But not quite the truth either. Whoever Michael was, he’d clearly meant to return. He’d wanted to be with them. He’d wanted her.
Something must have happened, something terrible. Because whatever her mother told her, her father didn’t come across as a man trying to dodge his responsibilities. The more she thought about it, the more it didn’t come across as the kind of thing a 17-year-old-would write at all. The language was too polished, for one thing. Teen-age boys didn’t go around calling their baby mamas “my love."
She closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose, willing her emotions to settle. If she cried, she would scream. Hurl something else into the wall. Break dishes. She’d only been a vampire for a few weeks and already she felt so emotionally drained she couldn’t see how she’d get through another month, never mind an eternity.
According to Leilan, the feelings wouldn’t last. He’d damn well better be right, she thought, taking a couple of deep breaths and returning her attention to the items on the desk.
She hadn’t cried.
Good. She was making progress.
Let’s see what else you’ve got to tell me, mom.
The necklace lay at the center of the box, on top of the sketches. She lifted it so that lamp illuminated the pendant, casting colored shadows onto the surface of the desk.
A silver eye with an emerald at its center.
Just like the one on the card Leilan had given her.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said softly.
She drew the pendant closer and studied it, turning it over in her hand. But the necklace had nothing to tell her. She wasn’t even sure if the emerald was real, though she guessed it was. Had it belonged to her mother or was it left for Hayden? Was it connected with letter or something altogether different?
She had no idea. And this time she wouldn’t be able to google for more information. Whatever secrets the pendant contained, they would remain hidden.
Which left the sketches.
Carefully, she grasped the thin squares of paper and laid them out in a row.
They weren’t sketches at all but parts of an old map, she realized. Each piece was part of a puzzle that connected with the other sheets. She arranged them in what she thought was the correct order but when she’d finished there were holes scattered throughout her hastily constructed puzzle. Clearly, several pieces were missing.
Either that or you put it together wrong. She’d never been fond of puzzles and she wasn’t any fonder of them now. In fact, she would have been a lot happier if whoever put the pieces in the box—her mother? father?—had taken the trouble to number them or otherwise identify the designated location.
Had the pieces come apart naturally over time or had somebody intentionally separated them? And where were the missing pieces?
Hayden pulled out her phone and took several shots of the reconstructed map. There was no year listed anywhere and nothing was labeled. But if her guess was right, she was looking at a map of one of the three St. Louis cemeteries.
Just how that would help she couldn’t say.
She didn’t even know what she was looking for. Had her mother left the box knowing Hayden would return to the city to search for her one day? She must have, otherwise she wouldn’t have instructed
Madame Lavalle to keep it hidden.
So her mother had known she was in danger.
Had always known it.
Hayden thought of all the years the two of them had lived in the apartment above the shop. Had her mother ever wanted more—she must have, the letter mentioned college, a future. What had scared her mother enough to give up her dreams? What had scared her enough to create an identity for herself that was so far removed from her former life?
The only person who could answer those questions was Gigi. And Hayden didn’t have the first clue how to find her.
Rather, she had clues. Plenty of them. But she didn’t have any idea how to decipher them.
Leilan might. The pendant was an exact match to the illustration on his business card. That couldn’t be a coincidence. There had to be a reason and he was damn well going to tell her what it was in the morning. Time to pay him a visit, no matter how sunny it was outside.
In the meantime, she was going to pour herself a drink.