In my last post I shared an excerpt from In the Dark (Children of Night, book one), a flashback scene to when the twins, Marc and Julie Fischer were infants. In book two, Old Sins, Long Shadows, the flashback scenes are all from a much earlier time (mostly fifteenth century Spain). Our next view of the twins as babies is from book three, Now Comes the Night–and it remains one of my favorite scenes.
New Year’s Eve, 1969
According to the clock on the living room mantel, it was almost midnight. Conrad Quintano glared at the offending timepiece. Its measured ticking grated on his nerves, mocking his attempts to ignore the relentless passage of time. He was tempted to pick up the clock and hurl it across the room. In fact, the only thing preventing him from doing so was the lack of a spare hand. As he paced the floors of the small suburban tract home he’d recently purchased, his arms were filled to overflowing with squirming infant vampire—two vampires, twins to be exact—both of whom appeared to be every bit as frustrated and wide-awake as he.
Conrad gazed at the babies with a grudging sense of wonderment. So small and yet still so strong. How was it they were still awake?
He should be able to subdue them, damn it. It was almost inconceivable that he could not. He was both their sire and their creator, albeit at one small remove, not to mention the undisputed head of a large and powerful household. He was also a Lamia Invitus, one of the last and strongest of his kind, with over a millennium of skill, experience and strength to draw upon. The idea that one such as he should be bested by two such tiny creatures was laughable. Yet the pair still resisted all his efforts to compel them back to sleep.
Oh, yes, they may have deigned to yawn a time or two, no doubt in deference to his pride. They might even have allowed their eyes to momentarily fall shut, but it was all just part of a cunning ruse, a transparent attempt to lull him into a false sense of complacency. Conrad wasn’t fool enough to fall for such obvious tricks—at least not after the first five or six times.
He could see right through their tactics. Were he to make the attempt to lay them down ever so gently in their crib, their eyes would pop open the instant their backs touched the mattress. Then their little limbs would start to flail and they’d begin once more to cry—those tearful, heart-rending, nerve-wracking sobs that always seemed disproportionately loud for the size of the bodies from which the sounds issued.
He supposed it was not really their fault they refused to be soothed. The baby books Damian had purchased, and insisted they both study, had had a lot to say about the terrifying maladies to which newborns were prone—things like growth spurts, teething pain, food allergies and colic. And even though the books had not been written with baby vampires in mind, Conrad was confident that what he was witnessing now was a reasonable approximation of what he’d read about within their pages. If only that wasn’t the only thing about which he felt confident!
The babies were hungry, that fact was indisputable. They needed blood—apparently more frequently now, and in much larger quantities than they’d been used to receiving. That too was a given. But how much did they need? And how soon did they need it? How long did he have before these newest of his children were irreparably damaged by malnutrition? Before starvation set in? Before they expired? Or before even worse things occurred? Only two months old and already their lives were in peril.
If vampire blood would have sufficed, Conrad would have happily opened every one of his veins in order to gain even a half hour’s respite. But, alas, only human blood could supply the twins with the nourishment their bodies craved. Unfortunately, their suddenly ravenous and increased appetites, while understandable, had caught him off guard. There was no blood left for them in the house.
Damian had gone out several hours earlier on what should have been a simple enough mission—a quick trip to the local hospital to purchase the needed sustenance from the connection he’d been cultivating, and then straight back home. He should have returned by now. He hadn’t.
If he doesn’t come back soon… No. He will. He has to.
What options did Conrad even have if Damian failed to return? He couldn’t just leave the twins unattended while he went out hunting. Nor could he take them with him. Exactly the reasons he’d appealed to Damian for his assistance in the first place!
Conrad should never have agreed with Damian when he’d argued that it made more sense for only one of them to risk getting caught trying to buy blood illegally. He should have made his own plans, cultivated his own hospital contacts. Why hadn’t he?
There was only one answer to that, an answer so screamingly obvious it should have shamed him to admit it—even to himself. He hadn’t wanted to accept the fact it might someday prove necessary. He hadn’t wanted to even entertain the possibility that Damian’s willingness to assist Conrad might, at some point, come to an end.
If Conrad were forced to go out tonight and find food for the twins, he’d have no one to blame but himself and little choice as to what he would have to do. He’d have to leave the twins unprotected, take to the streets, waylay random strangers and drag them back to the house.
And then kill said strangers when he was done with them in order to prevent them from talking about what they’d seen.
The very thought sickened him. Not because it would be the first time he’d unjustly ended someone’s life. No, not even the thousandth time. But he’d been happy to allow the dust of several accumulated centuries to cover over those horrors, to bury and obscure his murderous past. He’d hoped never to have to dig it up and revisit it.
Now, unpalatable as the idea was, it had to be considered. It was possible he no longer had a choice—nor the luxury of scruples. The twins were his first responsibility. Everything else had to take a backseat to their needs.
How long should he wait? Conrad’s anxiety increased as his mind began to once again tick over the list of possible explanations for what could be keeping Damian. Maybe his luck had run out and he’d been caught. Maybe he was being interrogated, even now, by curious humans with questions as to what dire circumstances could have driven him to buy blood—or by other vampires wondering much the same thing. He might be dead, injured, incarcerated…
Or perhaps it w as none of those things. Perhaps he’d merely stopped to slake his own hunger and lost track of the time.
That was always a possibility, wasn’t it? It was not as though either of them were strangers to such debauchery. If it turned out Damian had merely chosen to spend a few hours, or even the entire night, sating himself, gorging ‘til dawn, Conrad really couldn’t fault him overmuch.
Given that Damian was already risking his life at Conrad’s behest, that Conrad had no legitimate hold on him beyond blood and loyalty, that the two of them were no longer even intimate with each other… No, Conrad couldn’t fault him at all.
There was still another reason to consider. A reason Conrad dreaded, possibly more than any of the others. Maybe this was the night Damian finally decided he’d had enough, that endangering his life in an effort to help Conrad with this endeavor was too foolish a gamble even for Damian to continue to take. Perhaps this was the night he’d decided to never come back at all.
Conrad could not repress the sound that left his lips as the thought took hold. Part snarl, part howl, wild and not even slightly civilized, it was the sound of a man bereft, the sound of a man pushed to the very edges of his sanity. In some tiny, sane corner of his mind, Conrad was glad Damian was not around to hear it. For it was also exactly the kind of sound that would likely cause anyone with any sense at all—even someone who was not already thinking of leaving Conrad—to take to their heels and flee.
Even the twins were not unaffected by this evidence of their sire’s unstable temperament. They stirred restively in response, their whimpers steadily increasing in volume until Conrad forced himself to regain some measure of control over his emotions. He couldn’t afford to fall apart to this extent. Not when there was so much at stake.
If he were on his own now, so be it. He should have expected it. After all, he’d had misgivings all along about the long-term success of this partnership. Just look at how quickly Damian had reached the decision to help Conrad. As though it were nothing more than an impulse, a whim, a matter of no consequence. If Conrad had been a more honorable man, or a less desperate one, he would have demanded that Damian take some time to think before committing himself. A few days perhaps. A few hours at the very least. He hadn’t.
A thrill of unease shot through Conrad as he gazed at the children in his arms, so fragile-seeming, so innocent. Did they really have the potential to someday shake his very world apart? It seemed too fantastical to believe. How he wished those legends had never been written. It didn’t matter whether or not they were true. Either way, they made his twins a target.
Had they been someone else’s children, anyone else’s children in fact, Conrad would have been among the first to insist they be put to death—humanely, of course—but swiftly and without delay. Vampires didn’t have to be the monsters they were so often portrayed to be, after all.
Instead… Well, there was more irony for you. He couldn’t help but chuckle bitterly as he considered it. For four hundred years, he’d been the self-styled protector of the Vampire Nation. He’d done everything in his power to strengthen and solidify his people’s position in the world. No one had been more dedicated to the task than he. There’d been no one more vigilant, more diligent—or less merciful—when it came to seeking out and eliminating potential threats against his kind.
Now, he was throwing that legacy away. He was putting all of it at risk, everything he’d worked to build or safeguard or preserve, right down the last dying embers of his own humanity. He was branding himself a hypocrite, a turncoat, a traitor, and all for the sake of a promise made to a dying girl.
On the other hand, what could possibly be more important or honorable than that?
Another howl, this one driven by loneliness and remorse, worked its way up his throat and he suppressed it with difficulty. What was done, was done. Crying over spilled blood had never yet brought anyone back to life. However things turned out, whatever his fate should be, he could be certain of just one thing. He’d brought it on himself.
He’d just begun another anxious circuit around the living room when noise erupted in the street outside the house and the stillness of the night was torn apart. Raised voices began shouting up and down the block. Conrad stiffened, his body shifting instantly into battle mode as his mind was hurled back in time several hundred years. When the clock on the mantel began to chime the hour, it barely registered in Conrad’s consciousness. The noise filtering in from outside completely captured his attention.
He could not make out the words being shouted over and over again, but the noise continued, growing louder as even more voices took up the cry, accompanied now by the blaring of horns and whistles, the barking of dogs, the unmistakable ring of metal striking metal. Was that a mob he was hearing? Was the local populace assembling and arming themselves, preparing to attack and kill the monster in their midst? He’d experienced such things before, on more than one occasion, and it certainly sounded like the same thing was happening again now. All his protective instincts were aroused. Fear for the children in his arms overrode his common sense. Venom streamed from his exposed fangs and he growled fiercely in response.
What had given him away this time? How had he been found out? How much time did he have to escape? When the twins, aroused by the clamoring noise, began to wail, it took all of Conrad’s self-restraint to keep from smothering them in an effort to keep them quiet.
“Not another sound!” he cautioned as he deposited the still-fussing babies on the nearer of the room’s two armchairs. He threw a blanket over the chair in a futile attempt to hide the infants as quickly as possible, and was surprised and relieved when they quieted instantly. Was it the security of the blanket to which they were responding, or to his authority? He had no idea and no time to even consider the matter.
He was headed for the windows at the front of the house for a quick glance outside, when a new, barely detectable sound caught his ear. A key turned quietly in the lock on the back door. In what could only be a sneak attack, someone was attempting to gain entrance to the house from the rear. Someone who would not live through this night—not if Conrad had anything to say about it!
Hurriedly regrouping, Conrad turned away from the window. He moved swiftly to counter this newest threat, stationing himself between his children and the doorway, wishing fervently that he’d thought to have a weapon handy. He hadn’t, however, so his own brute force would have to suffice.
Fortunately, his own brute strength had always been more than a match for most of his opponents. He could only hope it would prove so this time.
Footsteps approached—measured, steady, without even a pretense of stealth. Conrad readied himself. When a lone figure appeared in the doorway, Conrad was seconds away from pouncing on the intruder and ripping out his throat. His subconscious intervened at the last instant, saving him from himself. Senses he was barely aware of possessing sounded an alarm, warning him of the mistake he was about to make. He stopped himself just in time.
Damian froze, his motions arrested in the act of removing his overcoat. His brows rose, his gaze appraised Conrad, who was still struggling to regain some measure of control. “Conrad? Is everything all right? Did something happen while I was gone? You look…strange.”
Conrad, still shaking from his close call, brushed aside Damian’s questions. He had questions of his own. “Never mind how I look. That noise outside—what is it? And what are you doing, sneaking in through the back? Why did you not use the front door like always?”
“The noise?” Damian shrugged out of his coat. “Is that what’s troubling you? It’s just the New Year being rung in. I’m glad to see the children aren’t bothered by it. Where are they, by the way? How did you finally get them to sleep?”
“New Year’s. Of course.” Conrad heaved a sigh of relief and ordered his muscles to stand down from alert. How could he have overlooked something so obvious? “I wasn’t…thinking. The date must have slipped my mind.”
Damian nodded. “Sleep deprivation, I expect. I’ve been reading about it. It’s apparently quite normal for new parents. And I came in through the back simply because I thought it might be better to avoid being seen coming in at this hour by our somewhat too-inquisitive neighbors. I’m sorry if you weren’t expecting it. I certainly didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Startle me? Don’t be ridiculous,” Conrad snapped, embarrassed by the overwrought condition of his nerves. He had no excuse other than worry and guilt and, yes, fine, lack of sleep as well—that was all he was willing to admit to anyway. “You didn’t startle me. I was merely growing impatient on the children’s behalf. What took you so long? I expected you back hours ago!”
A small smile glimmered suddenly on Damian’s lips. “Yes. Again, I’m sorry. I’m afraid it could not be helped. The orderly with whom I’m used to dealing had been given the night off. Inconsiderate of him, I know, but it is a holiday, so what can you do? It took a little bit of persuading before I was finally able to convince his replacement to give me everything I wanted. He had some…reservations that had to be overcome. I gather he generally prefers women, otherwise I’m sure I’d have been quicker.”
Conrad winced. He knew Damian hadn’t meant it, but his words carried an unintended sting. It was all Conrad could do to suppress a furious growl when graphic visions began to play in his head, images of everything Damian had likely been doing in order to bring his new orderly around to his way of thinking. Things he’d once been in the habit of doing only with Conrad.
Conrad stamped violently on his burgeoning emotions. He was not jealous, damn it. He had neither the right any longer nor any rational reason to be so. He and Damian had not been lovers for many years. What they’d had was over long ago. They’d both moved on. It was better that way, safer for them both. It would be beyond foolish for them to even think about taking up with each other again—especially now, with so much else at stake. He cleared his throat. “I see. Well, that is unfortunate. I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Oh, no, on the contrary.” Damian’s smile grew wider. “I quite enjoyed myself. It was such a novelty. I do believe I’ve given him a whole new perspective on life. In fact, I may have to make a habit of stopping by, from time to time, just to see him.”
Conrad’s jaw clenched. “Splendid.”
“It is, isn’t it? One of life’s little silver linings.” Still smiling, Damian swept past Conrad and into the living room, headed for the closer of the two armchairs. He was on the verge of tossing his coat over the back of it when he stopped, seemingly frozen in place. The coat dropped to the floor. “¡Mis bebés!” With a startled cry, he sprang forward and snatched the blanket off the chair. He went down on his knees and quickly gathered the infants into his arms. “Conrad, what were you thinking? Why would you leave them here, and all covered up like this! Did you want them to roll off onto the floor, where we might have stepped on them? Were you perhaps trying to suffocate them? Que im pobre niños lo siento,” he murmured softly to the infants. “Why so quiet, little ones? Are you quite terrified? Don’t be frightened, niños. Your Uncle Damian is back to take care of you. Everything will be fine now.”
“Step on them?” Conrad snarled viciously, his temper evaporating into white-hot rage. “Suffocate them? You imbecile! You dare suggest I would intentionally do them harm? After everything that’s been sacrificed on their behalf? After the promise I’ve given their mother and all I’ve done to ensure their safety—since the day they were born?”
“What?” Still on his knees, Damian turned to look at Conrad. His eyes widened in alarm and he twisted, until he was seated with his back to the chair. He tightened his arms protectively around the children and he hugged them closer to his chest. “Calm yourself, querido. I was upset. It was merely a figure of speech. You must know I didn’t mean anything by it.” He continued for a moment longer to study Conrad warily, then his expression changed, softened, relaxed. “Are you quite all right, Conrad?” he asked, his voice gentler than before. “You seem…unusually jumpy tonight.”
That look in Damian’s eyes… What was that? Was that…pity? Conrad turned away in disgust. “Uncle Damian?” he repeated quizzically. “Is that what you’re calling yourself now?”
“They’ll have to call me something when they’re a little older, won’t they? I might as well begin to lay the groundwork now. And seeing as it was you who sired both their mother and me… Can you think of a better way of describing my relationship with them?”
“And what do you intend for them to call me?”
Damian’s eyes twinkled suddenly and Conrad could have sworn he was holding back a laugh as he answered, “Grandfather, obviously. I would have thought that went without saying.”
“Grandfather?” Conrad stared at him. “How is that obvious? Do I look so old now?”
Damian smiled. “Not at all. You’re still as youthful looking as the day I met you. It’s simply that, again, as you are their mother’s sire, I judged it the simplest approach. But perhaps you had something else in mind? Was there some other way in which you planned to describe to them your relationship with their mother?”
Conrad scrubbed his hand across his face. His relationship with their mother. Yes, that was definitely not a subject he wished to discuss in any great detail with her children. Assuming they lived long enough to ask about her. “I hadn’t actually given the matter much thought.” It was all still such a long shot. “But, since you clearly have, so be it. Grandfather I shall be, should the need arise. Now, where’s the blood?” he asked, choosing to change the subject rather than continue. “I’m assuming you did eventually manage to bring some home with you?”
“Yes, of course,” Damian replied, in between murmured endearments addressed to the babes in his arms. “You didn’t really think I’d forget, did you? I got as much as I could, several bottles, the freshest they had. Hopefully it’ll be enough to tide us over for a while, but if they’re going to continue to eat at this rate, we’re going to have to reconsider our plans, not to mention seek out some new resources—and soon. I left the bag on the dining room table, if you’d be so good as to get it.”
Conrad blinked in surprise. “You expect me to get it?” There had been a time, and not that long ago, when people had waited on him, not the other way around.
Damian glanced pointedly at the infants in his arms. “Well, I do have my hands full at the moment. Unless you’d like to trade places? I don’t imagine you thought to change their diapers while I was gone, did you?”
Conrad opened his mouth and then closed it again when he could think of nothing to say. Turning, he left the room without saying another word.
It was too much. Nothing in his past had prepared him for this. How was he expected to deal with it all? Deadly threats against the twins, their imminent starvation, the possible annihilation of his entire race and his own forced absence from his nest—for who knew how long, decades at least. Now diapers too? Why, in his day, children didn’t even wear diapers. Come to think of it, they hadn’t in Damian’s day either. At least…he didn’t think they did. So how was it he could remember to think of all these details?