Author's Note: Approximately half-way through this chapter I gave up any hope of ending the story properly and decided to just finish it here. Yes, it leaves plot threads hanging. Yes, it makes no sense. Eventually I'll come back and edit or continue it, but for the time being this is the end.
Chapter XXI: Black and Red
Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds. – George Eliot, Adam Bede
A pit seemed to have opened in the bottom of Dani's stomach. Nothing could have prepared her for an uninvited guest appearing at the window. Especially this uninvited guest. Was she never to see the last of Claire?
"What are you doing?" she asked, pressing her hand against her forehead. "Why are you at my window?"
"I couldn't open the door," Claire said, as if climbing through windows was a perfectly normal hobby.
Dani suppressed an absurd urge to burst out laughing. "I see. And why are you here at all?"
Claire pouted, laying to rest any doubt Dani might have that she had any emotional maturity at all. "Beatrice wouldn't believe me. So I thought you would."
"And what did you think I'd believe?" Dani prompted when it became clear Claire wouldn't say anything else. Really, talking to this vampire would give anyone a headache. "Please tell me you haven't set fire to any more washing machines."
Claire's pout intensified. Dani almost facepalmed. She'd seen more mature behaviour from Max. A grown woman – and a vampire, no less – should know better.
"Will no one ever let me forget about that?" Claire complained. "I came to tell you about the empty grave."
Those words conjured up images of another newly-turned vampire rampaging around somewhere. Dani's heart jumped into her throat. She could just imagine what sort of chaos it was causing. People drained of blood, attacking anyone who got in its way, clumsy attempts at finding a place to live – er, dwell – and hunt...
She forced herself to stop panicking. An empty grave did not necessarily mean anything supernatural was on the loose.
"Where was this empty grave, whose was it, and how did you find out about it?" she asked, sounding like a teacher trying to get the right answers out of the class dunce.
Claire brightened up as if she'd never pouted. "It's in Ballinamallard, it's Courtney's, and I wanted to be a detective too."
Good lord. Could this case possibly get any more complicated? Now she had an empty grave to wonder about as well as everything else?
"I'd never have thought you would be interested in being a detective," Dani said, which was true enough. She would have expected Claire to lose interest the minute she tried it and found solving crimes was harder than she thought. "Why did you decide to look at the grave at all?"
Claire had climbed through the window, and now she was examining the pictures on Dani's walls. She leaned up close to a photo of great-great-grandmother Anne and peered at it as if it was some exotic curiosity. "I felt like visiting it. And I saw the ground had been dug up recently."
This mystery kept gaining new facets that had no business being there. Why would anyone bother to dig up a grave at all?
Dani's first instinct was to tell Claire to investigate it herself, if she was so interested in it. She quickly suppressed this with a certainty it would be disastrous. The last thing anyone needed was Claire poking around graveyards. She'd get arrested as a suspicious character, she'd attack the policemen, and who knew what would happen then?
"You can always tell the police, you know," she said after dismissing several other possible remarks. "I'm sure you can find a way to do it anonymously. Let them do the job they get paid for; goodness knows they don't do it often enough."
Claire did not look happy with this solution. Dani couldn't see why she had a problem with it. Surely she wasn't that interested in being a detective.
"Now, since you're here," Dani closed the book and got up from sitting on the side of the bed, "you might as well have a cup of tea before you leave. Do you drink tea?"
"There's a vampire in the kitchen."
At first no one paid much attention to what Rosie had just said. Then everyone understood it at the exact same minute, and everyone looked up from their homework in unison.
"What did you say?"
They didn't speak exactly in unison. Some people spoke first, others joined in later, and the rest gaped in silence. All of them stared at Rosie with the same expression of incredulous disbelief. She practically jumped up and down in excitement.
"It's the vampire who was here before," she elaborated. "What's her name – Chloe, Clara, Claire? Dani's giving her coffee and a chocolate biscuit."
She winced and covered her ears at the outburst of shouts that followed this.
"Don't be ridiculous!" was the general theme of everyone's comments. "Vampires don't drink coffee! And they don't eat chocolate biscuits!"
Rosie was adamant. "Come and see, if you don't believe me."
Everyone pushed their books aside and trooped out into the hall. Eleven heads appeared around the corner. Eleven pairs of eyes stared into the kitchen. Their vantage point gave them a very limited view of the kitchen. All they could see was the fridge, the door leading to the utility room, and half of the table. Dani was completely out of their line of sight. All they could see of the guest was an arm and part of a leg. They could hear what was being said just fine, though.
"Did you know Patrick collects butterflies? It's his favourite hobby, Beatrice says. He has a whole cabinet full of them. I try to avoid them. I know it sounds silly but they creep me out. There are needles in them! Awfully like staking them, don't you think? Patrick says he never thought of it like that."
The children looked at each other in bewilderment. Why was their visitor talking about butterflies? It wasn't a subject anyone would expect a vampire to talk about. It wasn't even a subject Dani was interested in.
Dani completely ignored the vampire's remarks. "Do you take sugar?"
A spoon rattled against the side of a cup. "I didn't when I was alive, but now I can't take coffee without it. Funny, that. I don't know why it is. Beatrice said it was because my sense of taste is different and soon I might not like coffee at all. I hope that doesn't happen; I've always liked coffee. It's the only thing I used to like that I still like now."
Footsteps crossed the room. Dani came into their line of sight, carrying a cup with wisps of steam floating above it. "I'd offer you some biscuits, but I take it you don't eat them any more."
They couldn't see if Claire shook her head. "I tried them once. They just made me cough, and I felt like I was eating sand. Being a vampire's fun and all, but I wish I could eat normal food once in a while. Do you think I'll be able to eventually?"
Dani raised an eyebrow. The children could guess what she was thinking: How should I know? "I'm sure you'll survive without normal food."
Of all the children Max was the least interested in what was happening. He didn't understand what Dani and Claire were talking about, he was getting tired of staring into the kitchen, and he began to look around for something else to do. The mention of biscuits caught his attention at once.
"Wan' a biskit!" he yelled, so loudly and unexpectedly that the other children jumped. "Wan' a biskit now!"
Julie grabbed him and clapped a hand over his mouth. An uncomfortable silence fell. They all knew it was too late. Dani strode briskly over to the door and opened it fully.
"Strange place to do your homework," she said drily, looking down at the huddled crowd of children gaping up at her. "I thought I raised you better than this. All of you should know by now that the most important part of eavesdropping is not getting caught."
Eleven pairs of eyes blinked in confusion. Since when did Dani tell them how they should eavesdrop better? It made no sense. She rarely encouraged them to do anything underhand.
"We were... just going out," Elias said quickly, making it up as he went along. "To see some of our friends. And ask what they did in school today. You know, so we wouldn't miss too much."
Dani raised an eyebrow. Disbelief was writ large all over her face. Missing school was not something the children ever worried about. For them to catch up on schoolwork when they had the day off was utterly unheard of. Everyone waited nervously for her to point out how threadbare this excuse was.
"Off you go, then," she said sweetly, with an innocent smile. "Make sure you're back before half-five."
All the children looked at each other with great embarrassment. None of them had ever considered visiting any friends. Now what were they to do?
Children, Dani thought with great exasperation. Always around when they're least wanted!
They were rather like vampires in that respect. Or at least one vampire; the one who was sitting in the kitchen as if she owned the place, chattering on about nonsense. Her brain clearly did not work like most people's. Or even like most vampires'. Trying to understand Claire's point of view gave Dani a headache.
"How do you cope with so many children?" the vampire asked after the door had closed behind the children and she and Dani were the only people in the house. "I'd go mad."
You mean you aren't already? Dani thought. She only just stopped herself saying it. "They can be a nuisance some times. But usually they're not too bad. When are you going back to Larne? I hope you arranged transport before coming here. I don't trust the van right now."
Heaven help personifications as a species if the van had been tampered with again. She would find some way to kill them, just see if she wouldn't. And if she had to find transportation for her uninvited guest, she might very well lose her mind.
"I borrowed Beatrice's car," Claire said. "She's finally allowed me to drive it again. On condition I don't damage it any more."
Dani saw an opportunity to get her visitor to leave. She seized it with both hands. "It will get dark soon. You should set out before it's too dark, or you're more likely to damage the car."
She didn't physically cross her fingers, but she did it mentally. If Claire left now, Dani could continue her book and try to get back to a semblance of normalcy. Goodness knew she needed to calm down after all the stress of today. If Claire didn't leave now, she might still be here when the children came back. And if she was still here then, she'd probably stay well into the evening. That was something Dani didn't know if she could endure.
"I suppose you're right," Claire said. Dani breathed a mental sigh of relief. "I'm supposed to be buying new clothes anyway. Beatrice will be angry if I haven't got any when I go back. For our trip to Wales, you know. Have you ever been to Wales?"
Memories resurfaced unbidden, memories of a certain eventful visit to Powys that ultimately had been more stressful because of what hadn't happened than because of what had. Dani shuddered and nodded. "Once. I didn't like it much."
Understatement of the year, she thought with a wry smile.
"I've never left Northern Ireland before," Claire said. Dani wasn't sure if the vampire had even heard her last remark. "Not even to go to Ireland. Well, I can't see why anyone would ever want to go to Ireland, but you know what I mean."
She didn't, actually. But she was just going to let Claire talk until she ran out of things to say then shoo her out the door. Hopefully it wouldn't take long. Not even Claire could talk for hours on end. Could she?
"It's a good thing we don't need passports," Claire continued. "It would be terribly awkward to apply for them and then have to explain why I need a passport when I was declared dead ten years ago. Creating false identities takes ages, you know, and there's always a risk someone will find an inconsistency in the paperwork."
Dani tried to tune her out. It was easier said than done. Really, did that woman ever stop talking?
"Well," Claire said at last, standing up, "I suppose I'd better go."
Dani suppressed the urge to jump for joy. "I hope you have a safe journey." And don't come back, she added mentally. I don't care if you find an entire graveyard full of empty graves. Just... shoo!
It took a great deal of self-control to not make a shooing motion behind Claire's back.
"Thank heaven she's gone!" Dani said to herself as Claire disappeared down the street in the direction of the car park. "I suppose I'd better put the oven on now."
It was almost half five. The children would be back any minute. And she still hadn't got around to writing more of her book. She'd never finish it at this rate. Goodness knew what it would look like by the time she started to edit it. There were still entire folders of research she hadn't found a way to include yet.
She put the kettle on, put fish and chips in the oven, then went up to her room and set up the typewriter. She resolutely refused to glance at the magic books. Entertaining though they were, she needed to do some work right now. At least she could use their errors to prove a point in her writing.
Magic's exact nature is very difficult to define. It cannot be taught, yet people can and have learnt it. It isn't always inherited, yet it often shows up in families. Different species have different types of magic. Or perhaps it would be better to say they have different strengths, for no one is certain how many varieties of magic there are. Attempting to control it by the use of spells almost always fails. Most spell books are written by frauds who don't know what they're talking about.
Dani was stopped from going on a rant about spell books by the sound of voices approaching. She listened for a second. It was the children. Rosie's voice, interspersed with Amy's and Cathy's, was the first she heard clearly. Behind them came the babble of the other children.
Writing any more would just have to wait. It would take years for her to finish at this rate. Dani put the typewriter back in its case and looked at the clock. She leapt to her feet with a shocked gasp.
Good heavens! she thought. I forgot about the food!
Writing most definitely would have to wait.
The slightest things could frighten someone. A flicker of shadow on the wall. A photograph taken at the wrong moment. Looking at anything for too long. The sounds the wind made outside the window.
Christian Sangue had learnt long ago to distinguish between sounds with a mundane explanation and sounds that were more sinister. When you were a half-vampire with many enemies you had no choice in the matter; either you learnt to notice threats or you died. As soon as he heard the rustling down the hall he froze and listened.
Ssssshhhh-ssssshhhhh. It might be a curtain blowing in the wind. It might be paper rustling in his brother's study. It might even be a mouse. Yet Christian knew in an impossible-to-describe way that it was none of those things.
He waited. If it was what he thought it was, sooner or later it would come to him. It was only here to see him after all.
The living room door creaked open. Quite remarkable, considering that door had been recently oiled and had never creaked even beforehand. Christian rolled his eyes. Some people were far too dramatic for their own good. The older and less human they were, the more strongly this trait showed. And when you had magic powers, you had a great many more opportunities to be dramatic. Christian knew this from personal experience. His family had turned it into an art form.
He couldn't stop himself grimacing at the memory of some of his own dramatic moments that had gone badly awry. He promptly schooled his face back into impassivity. Never let a possible threat see what you were thinking. It only gave them an advantage.
Slowly, punctuated with ear-splitting creaks, the door opened fully. Nothing happened. No one came in. Christian waited.
"Do hurry up," he said at last. "You might have all day, but I certainly haven't."
Finally the visitor deigned to show themselves. It was quite an anticlimax. There he'd been expecting any sort of nightmarish creature, and what he got was a perfectly normal, even unremarkable elderly lady. Christian bit his lip to keep himself from gaping. Unfortunately he bit too hard. The taste of blood filled his mouth.
"I hope you've finally finished your revenge," he said, forming the words awkwardly as he tried to speak and run his tongue over the broken skin at the same time. "You've given the police an awful lot of hard work."
The "elderly lady" made no move to sit down. She just stared at him, not moving from near the door. Her irises were completely black, without obvious pupils. Her long nails were red; the sort of dull, not at all glossy red that suggested they were naturally that colour. It was the sort of calculated attempt to frighten that her kind excelled at.
Christian was not so easily frightened. "What do you want? You want something or you wouldn't be here."
Finally the visitor spoke. Her voice was a little girl's. "Yes, my revenge is complete." She stopped. Christian waited. "There is someone I want you to keep an eye on. They have meddled in my affairs too much."
"Why are you dragging me into this?" Christian asked warily. "Deal with it yourself."
The visitor scoffed. "I have. She tried to stab me, then she gave me tea. I will have nothing more to do with her. All I want is for you to make sure she stays out of trouble."
Christian opened his mouth to retort. She cut him off by taking a sheet of paper out of her pocket, tossing it to him, and promptly vanishing into thin air. He consoled himself by muttering insults as he stooped to pick up the paper. There was only a name and an address on it.
"Danielle O'Shannon," he read. "Who in the world is that?"