Janet wanted to hole up somewhere for the rest of the night. Andrea felt they had come too far to stop. She and Marko convinced Janet of the need to keep going. If Charles even suspected that they were going to talk to anyone associated with him, then he might do away with that person before they could get to him or her.
Any information the man they sought could give them about Charles or his plans might improve their chances of survival. Marko hoped to feel less like they were wandering around directionless in the dark. He too tired to think straight. Marko had been recovering from a grueling journey, when Ethan had showed up with the sisters in tow and dumped them into his lap. After hours of having to focus his attention and energy into conjuring defensive magic, to fend off some stranger’s relentless attacks on them, he was spent. Marko didn’t argue, when Andrea wanted to take the wheel and drive for a while. He willingly switched places with Janet and lay across the backseat.
The sisters rode in watchful silence. Exhaustion had dulled the edges of Janet’s sharp fear. The one thing she didn’t want to do was to have a panic attack. She willed herself to stop staring into the passenger sideview mirror, realizing that indulging her anxiety was feeding her paranoia. Every other car seemed to be following them. She nervously plucked at the hem of her shirt as her eyes were repeatedly drawn to the sideview mirror.
Andrea was oblivious to her sister’s struggle. She was almost giddy with excitement. All the action was energizing. The idea that at any given moment, something unexpected might confront them excited her senses and kept her short attention span engaged.
After seeing the way that Marko handled himself, she felt relatively safe again. Andrea regretted her hysteria over the temporary loss of her eyesight. Marko probably thought she was a loser. That idea rankled Andrea. She didn’t want him to have the wrong impression of her. She wasn’t soft like Janet. Those thoughts kept gnawing at her. Trying not to think about it just made it worse.
Andrea’s reputation was important to her. Increasingly, she felt the need to do something heroic, to save face. She had no idea why it was so important to her that Marko knew that she was every bit as strong as he was. Andrea could fend for herself. She didn’t need looking after like Janet did.
Their uneventful drive ended in an a quaint looking neighborhood where a gentrification effort had begun and seemingly been abandoned. Refurbished homes quickly gave way to homes in disrepair, which were practically leaning with wear and tear.
Andrea parked the car and retrieved a flashlight from her backpack. She looked up in time to stop Janet from waking Marko. Andrea, pressed a finger to her lips and motioned for Janet to step outside quietly. She held up a hand to forestall her sister’s protests.
“He’s exhausted Janet. We should let him sleep. How hard could it be to ask this guy we’re meeting a few questions?”
“You make it sound simple but you and I both know nothing about this little adventure has been what it seems.”
Andrea rolled her eyes and stomped away. Janet hesitated for a few moments looking back at the car. Her gut told her that leaving Marko behind would be a dangerous mistake. But what if I’m wrong? Andrea will never let it go, if this guy we’re meeting with turns out to be harmless. She acts like her feelings are hurt, whenever I don’t trust her judgment. Janet sighed and gave in to her sister.
She had to scurry to catch up with Andrea on the steps of an old antebellum boarding house that had seen much better days. A quavering old voice beseeched them from the darkened, screened-in porch. Janet could dimly make out the slope-shouldered figure of a woman seated outside the home’s front door, in a wheelchair stroking a cat on her lap.
As they opened the screen door, she stretched out her hand. Janet began rooting around in her purse for her wallet as she stepped up onto the porch behind her sister. Andrea looked quizzically at Janet.
“What are you looking for?”
“I’m going to give that poor woman a dollar.”
“What woman? There’s no one else on this porch.”
Andrea shone her flashlight on an empty wheelchair. Janet was startled motionless. There had been a woman sitting right in front of her holding a cat! I’m not crazy. I heard her talking. Where the hell did she go that fast? Janet was still staring gape-mouthed at the empty seat when the black cat emerged from the darkness beneath the chair and advanced on Janet, staring fixedly at her with cold yellow eyes. It bared its teeth with a shrill meow that ended in a growl.
Janet was unnerved by the way the shadows seemed to swallow all but the piercing yellow eyes which glared up at her with malicious intent, as the cat bounded towards her. She jumped back and was startled by the sound of a throaty laugh right by her ear. Janet spun around to find only darkness behind her. She turned back around to find that Andrea had gone inside. Janet followed suit so quickly she nearly scuffed the backs of her sister’s shoes.
Andrea shot her an exasperated glare before calling out, “We’re here Phillip. Where are you?”
The deep gloom in the entryway felt vaguely threatening. They peered into the large parlor, to the right of the door. Shafts of dusty moonlight highlighted random pieces of bulky furniture, creating oddly shaped shadows in the darkened areas of the cavernous room. After a moment’s hesitation, they waded into the pools of darkness in the parlor rather than venturing blindly into the absolute darkness in the rest of the house.
Janet glanced furtively from one shadowy corner to the next, certain that something or someone lurked there. She felt his presence before the silver eyes shone from other end of the room. Janet reflexively grabbed her sister’s arm. The darkness seemed to part like a curtain as he stepped into a shaft of moonlight. A hoodie concealed his face but the eyes were as luminous as the moonlight outlining his imposing form.
The sisters exchanged wary glances. Andrea spoke up, “Charles?”
“No, I’m Phillip. Why would you think I was him?”
“Yes of course, I forget. All of his…converts have the glow. It’s only noticeable in the moonlight. ”
“So you’re still part of his crew? I thought you left him.”
“I did, but not before I was branded with the devil’s mark. So, he continues to exert a…hold over me.”
Andrea looked at him quizzically, “Well, you haven’t really left him then. I find it hard to believe that he would let you just walk away.”
“I occasionally do a little…wet work for him in exchange for the relative freedom that I enjoy. There are others like me whom he calls upon from time to time to use their ‘talents’ to service him.”
Janet was getting a bad feeling. “You mean you murder people? Who does he have you kill?”
“Just about anyone who gets in his way.”
Andrea nearly sneered, “I don’t believe you. He doesn’t need you running around whacking people. He’s a warlock, not some Mafioso.”
“Magic exacts too high a price for him to be using it to get rid of everyone who gets on his bad side.”
Andrea eyed him suspiciously, “What do you mean it exacts a price? It doesn’t take more than a breath to recite some spell.”
“It’s not just the words you say, it’s the concentration and energy that makes word magic work.”
“Let say I believe you. What do you get out of it?”
“You mean how did he persuade me to do his dirty work? I’ll answer a question with a question. What would you do for the promise of eternal life?”
“Not that song and dance routine again! I’ll admit I might actually be impressed, if I hadn’t already met another convert of his who also only comes out at night. What good is eternal life if you have to live like a vampire?”
“I didn’t always live like this. I lived a normal life, until one of my jobs for Charles went south. I got shot and my body started to die. Thanks to the dark gift, my soul remains tethered to my body as it slowly… wastes away.”
Janet shook her head vigorously, “But at some point it must end right? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
It was Phillip’s turn to shake his head. “Not as long as Charles is alive. He is the fount of life energy which animates all of those who bear his mark. Depending upon how useful someone is to him, he can halt or minimize the rate of decay. Besides, it doesn’t matter how much flesh is left on my bones. I will walk this earth as long as he does.”
The sisters were still pondering Phillip’s disclosure, when he lunged at Janet with a suddenness that caught her completely off guard. Moonlight flashed across a silver dagger in Phillip’s upraised right hand. Andrea had picked up on his watchfulness and the almost imperceptible way he had inched towards them and started looking around. She grabbed a tarnished serving tray off of a small table behind them and used it to block the blade from connecting with Janet’s chest.
“Get out of here Janet,” shouted Andrea.
“I’m not leaving without you.”