فصل 13

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فصل 13

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13

When the phone rang, it was pitch black outside. I shook myself from sleep, reaching across the bed to jostle Matthew awake. He wasn’t there.

I rolled over and picked up his mobile from the bedside table. The name MIRIAM was displayed, along with the time. Three o’clock Monday morning. My heart thudded in alarm. Only an emergency would have induced her to call at such an hour.

“Miriam?” I said after pushing the answer button.

“Where is he?” Miriam’s voice shook. “I need to speak with Matthew.”

“I’ll find him. He must be downstairs, or outside hunting.” I threw off the covers. “Is something wrong?”

“Yes,” Miriam said abruptly. Then she switched to another language, one I didn’t understand. The cadence was unmistakable, though. Miriam Shephard was praying.

Matthew burst through the door, Fernando behind him.

“Here’s Matthew.” I hit the speaker button and handed him the phone. He was not going to have this conversation in private.

“What is it, Miriam?” Matthew said.

“There was a note. In the mailbox. A Web address was typed on it.” There was a curse, a jagged sob, and Miriam’s prayer resumed.

“Text me the address, Miriam,” Matthew said calmly.

“It’s him, Matthew. It’s Benjamin,” Miriam whispered. “And there was no stamp on the envelope.

He must still be here. In Oxford.”

I leaped out of bed, shivering in the predawn darkness.

“Text me the address,” Matthew repeated.

A light came on in the hallway.

“What’s going on?” Chris joined Fernando at the threshold, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“It’s one of Matthew’s colleagues from Oxford, Miriam Shephard. Something’s happened at the lab,” I told him.

“Oh,” Chris said with a yawn. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and frowned. “Not the Miriam Shephard who wrote the classic article about how inbreeding among zoo animals leads to a loss of heterozygosity?” I’d spent a lot of time around scientists, but it seldom helped me to understand what they were talking about.

“The same,” Matthew murmured.

“I thought she was dead,” Chris said.

“Not quite,” said Miriam in her piercing soprano. “To whom am I speaking?”

“Chris—Christopher Roberts. Yale University,” Chris stammered. He sounded like a graduate student introducing himself at his first conference.

“Oh. I liked your last piece in Science. Your research model is impressive, even though the conclusions are all wrong.” Miriam sounded more like herself now that she was criticizing a fellow researcher. Matthew noticed the positive change, too.

“Keep her talking,” Matthew encouraged Chris before issuing a quiet command to Fernando.

“Is that Miriam?” Sarah asked, shoving her arms through the sleeves of her bathrobe. “Don’t vampires have clocks? It’s three in the morning!”

“What’s wrong with my conclusions?” Chris asked, his expression thunderous.

Fernando was back, and he handed Matthew his laptop. It was already on, the screen’s glow illuminating the room. Sarah reached around the doorframe and flicked the light switch, banishing the remaining darkness. Even so I could feel the shadows pressing down on the house. Matthew perched on the edge of the bed, his laptop on his knee. Fernando tossed him another cell phone, and Matthew tethered it to the computer.

“Have you seen Benjamin’s message?” Miriam sounded calmer than before, but fear kept her voice keen.

“I’m calling it up now,” Matthew said.

“Don’t use Sarah’s Internet connection!” Her agitation was palpable. “He’s monitoring traffic to the site. He might be able to locate you from your IP address.”

“It’s all right, Miriam,” Matthew said, his voice soothing. “I’m using Fernando’s mobile. And Baldwin’s computer people made sure that no one can trace my location from it.”

Now I understood why Baldwin had supplied us with new cell phones when we left Sept-Tours, changed all our phone plans, and canceled Sarah’s Internet service.

An image of an empty room appeared on the screen. It was white-tiled and barren except for an old sink with exposed plumbing and an examination table. There was a drain in the floor. The date and time were in the lower left corner, the numbers on the clock whirring forward as each second passed.

“What’s that lump?” Chris pointed to a pile of rags on the floor. It stirred.

“A woman,” Miriam said. “She’s been lying there since I got on the site ten minutes ago.” As soon as Miriam said it, I could make out her thin arms and legs, the curve of her breast and belly. The scrap of cloth over her wasn’t large enough to protect her from the cold. She shivered and whimpered.

“And Benjamin?” Matthew said, his eyes glued to the screen.

“He walked through the room and said something to her. Then he looked straight at the camera— and smiled.”

“Did he say anything else?” Matthew asked.

“Yes. ‘Hello, Miriam.’”

Chris leaned over Matthew’s shoulder and touched the computer’s trackpad. The image grew larger. “There’s blood on the floor. And she’s chained to the wall.” Chris stared at me. “Who’s Benjamin?”

“My son.” Matthew’s glance flickered to Chris, then returned to the screen.

Chris crossed his arms over his chest and stared, unblinking, at the image.

Soft strains of music came out of the computer speakers. The woman shrank against the wall, her eyes wide.

“No,” she moaned. “Not again. Please. No.” She stared straight at the camera. “Help me.”

My hands flashed with colors, and the knots on my wrists burned. I felt a tingle, dull but unmistakable.

“She’s a witch. That woman is a witch.” I touched the screen. When I drew my finger away, a thin green thread was attached to the tip.

The thread snapped.

“Can she hear us?” I asked Matthew.

“No,” Matthew said grimly. “I don’t believe so. Benjamin wants me to listen to him.”

“No talking to our guests.” There was no sign of Matthew’s son, but I knew that cold voice. The woman instantly subsided, hugging her arms around her body.

Benjamin approached the camera until his face filled most of the screen. The woman was still visible over his shoulder. He’d staged this performance carefully.

“Another visitor has joined us—Matthew, no doubt. How clever of you to mask your location. And dear Miriam is still with us, I see.” Benjamin smiled again. No wonder Miriam was shaken. It was a horrifying sight: those curved lips and the dead eyes I remembered from Prague. Even after more than four centuries, Benjamin was recognizable as the man whom Rabbi Loew had called Herr Fuchs.

“How do you like my laboratory?” Benjamin’s arm swept the room. “Not as well equipped as yours, Matthew, but I don’t need much. Experience is really the best teacher. All I require is a cooperative research subject. And warmbloods are so much more revealing than animals.”

“Christ,” Matthew murmured. “I’d hoped the next time we talked it would be to discuss my latest successful experiment. But things haven’t worked out quite as planned.” Benjamin turned his head, and his voice became menacing.

“Have they?”

The music grew louder, and the woman on the floor moaned and tried to block her ears.

“She used to love Bach,” Benjamin reported with mock sadness. “The St. Matthew Passion in particular. I’m careful to play it whenever I take her. Now the witch becomes unaccountably distressed as soon as she hears the first strains.” He hummed along with the next bars of music.

“Does he mean what I think he means?” Sarah asked uneasily.

“Benjamin is repeatedly raping that woman,” Fernando said with barely controlled fury. It was the first time I’d seen the vampire beneath his easygoing façade.

“Why?” Chris asked. Before anyone could answer, Benjamin resumed.

“As soon as she shows signs of being pregnant, the music stops. It’s the witch’s reward for doing her job and pleasing me. Sometimes nature has other ideas, though.”

The implications of Benjamin’s words sank in. As in long-ago Jerusalem, this witch had to be a weaver. I covered my mouth as the bile rose.

The glint in Benjamin’s eye intensified. He adjusted the angle of the camera and zoomed in on the blood that stained the woman’s legs and the floor.

“Unfortunately, the witch miscarried.” Benjamin’s voice had the detachment of any scientist reporting his research findings. “It was the fourth month—the longest she’s been able to sustain a pregnancy. So far. My son impregnated her last December, but that time she miscarried in the eighth week.”

Matthew and I had conceived our first child in December, too. I’d miscarried early in that pregnancy, around the same time as Benjamin’s witch. I started to shake at this new connection between me and the woman on the floor. Matthew’s arm hooked around my hips, steadying me.

“I was so sure my ability to father a child was linked to the blood rage you gave me—a gift that I’ve shared with many of my own children. After the witch miscarried the first time, my sons and I tried impregnating daemons and humans without success. I concluded there must be some special reproductive affinity between vampires with blood rage and witches. But these failures mean I’ll have to reexamine my hypothesis.” Benjamin pulled a stool up to the camera and sat, oblivious to the growing agitation of the woman behind him. In the background the Bach continued to play.

“And there is another piece of information that I’ll also have to factor into my deliberations: your marriage. Has your new wife replaced Eleanor in your affections? Mad Juliette? Poor Celia? That fascinating witch I met in Prague?” Benjamin snapped his fingers as if trying to remember something.

“What was her name? Diana?”

Fernando hissed. Chris’s skin broke out in raised bumps. He stared at Fernando and stepped away.

“I’m told your new wife is a witch, too. Why don’t you ever share your ideas with me? You must know I’d understand.” Benjamin leaned closer as if sharing a confidence. “We’re both driven by the same things, after all: a lust for power, an unquenchable thirst for blood, a desire for revenge.”

The music reached a crescendo, and the woman began to rock back and forth in an attempt to soothe herself.

“I can’t help wondering how long you’ve known about the power in our blood. The witches surely knew. What other secret could the Book of Life possibly contain?” Benjamin paused as if waiting for an answer. “Not going to tell me, eh? Well, then. I have no choice but to go back to my own experiment.

Don’t worry. I’ll figure out how to breed this witch eventually—or kill her trying. Then I’ll look for a new witch. Maybe yours will suit.”

Benjamin smiled. I drew away from Matthew, not wanting him to sense my fear. But his expression told me that he knew.

“Bye for now.” Benjamin gave a jaunty wave. “Sometimes I let people watch me work, but I’m not in the mood for an audience today. I’ll be sure to let you know if anything interesting develops.

Meanwhile you might want to think about sharing what you know. It might save me from having to ask your wife.”

With that, Benjamin switched off the lens and the sound. It left a black screen, with the clock still ticking down the seconds in the corner.

“What are we going to do?” Miriam asked.

“Rescue that woman,” Matthew said, his fury evident.

“Benjamin wants you to rush into the open and expose yourself,” Fernando warned. “Your attack will have to be well planned and perfectly executed.”

“Fernando’s right,” Miriam said. “You can’t go after Benjamin until you’re sure you can destroy him. Otherwise you put Diana at risk.”

“That witch won’t survive much longer!” Matthew exclaimed.

“If you are hasty and fail to bring Benjamin to heel, he will simply take another and the nightmare will begin again for some other unsuspecting creature,” Fernando said, his hand clasped around Matthew’s arm.

“You’re right.” Matthew dragged his eyes away from the screen. “Can you warn Amira, Miriam?

She needs to know that Benjamin has one witch already and won’t hesitate to take another.”

“Amira isn’t a weaver. She wouldn’t be able to conceive Benjamin’s child,” I observed.

“I don’t think Benjamin knows about weavers. Yet.” Matthew rubbed at his jaw. “And I never considered that blood rage may also play a role in vampire-witch reproduction.”

“What’s a weaver?” Miriam and Chris said at the same moment. I opened my mouth to reply, but the slight shake of Matthew’s head made me close it again.

“I’ll tell you later, Miriam. Will you do what I asked?”

“Sure, Matthew,” Miriam agreed.

“Call me later and check in.” Matthew’s worried glance settled on me.

“Stifle Diana with your excessive attention if you must, but I don’t need a baby-sitter. Besides, I’ve got work to do.” Miriam hung up. A second later Chris delivered a powerful uppercut to Matthew’s jaw. He followed it with a left hook. Matthew intercepted that blow with a raised palm.

“I took one punch, for Diana’s sake.” Matthew closed his fist around Chris’s clenched hand. “My wife does, after all, bring out the protective instincts in people. But don’t press your luck.”

Chris didn’t budge. Fernando sighed.

“Let it go, Roberts. You will not win a physical contest with a vampire.” Fernando put his hand on Chris’s shoulder, prepared to pull him away if necessary.

“If you let that bastard within fifty miles of Diana, you won’t see another sunrise—vampire or no vampire. Are we clear on that?” Chris demanded, his attention locked on Matthew.

“Crystal,” Matthew replied. Chris pulled his arm back, and Matthew released his fist.

“Nobody’s getting any more sleep tonight. Not after this,” Sarah said. “We need to talk. And lots of coffee—and don’t you dare use decaf, Diana. But first I’m going outside to have a cigarette, no matter what Fernando says.” Sarah marched out of the room. “See you in the kitchen,” she shot over her shoulder.

“Keep that site online. When Benjamin is turning on the camera, he might do or say something that will give his location away.” Matthew handed his laptop and the still-attached mobile to Fernando.

There was still nothing but a black screen and that horrible clock marking the passage of time. Matthew angled his head toward the door, and Fernando followed Sarah.

“So let me get this straight. Matthew’s Bad Seed is engaged in some down-home genetics research involving a hereditary condition, a kidnapped witch, and some half-baked ideas about eugenics.” Chris folded his arms over his chest. There were a few details missing, but he had sized up the situation in no time at all. “You left some important plot twists out of the fairy tale you told me yesterday, Diana.”

“She didn’t know about Benjamin’s scientific interests. None of us knew.” Matthew stood.

“You must have known that the Bad Seed was as crazy as a shit-house rat. He is your son.” Chris’s eyes narrowed. “According to him you both share this blood-rage thing. That means you’re both a danger to Diana.”

“I knew he was unstable, yes. And his name is Benjamin.” Matthew chose not to respond to the second half of Chris’s remarks.

“Unstable? The man is a fucking psychopath. He’s trying to engineer a master race of vampire witches. So why isn’t the Bad—Benjamin locked up? That way he couldn’t kidnap and rape his way onto the roster of scientific madmen alongside Sims, Verschuer, Mengele, and Stanley.”

“Let’s go to the kitchen.” I urged them both in the direction of the stairs.

“After you,” Matthew murmured, putting his hand on the small of my back. Relieved by his easy acquiescence, I began my descent.

There was a thud, a muffled curse.

Chris was pinned against the door, Matthew’s hand wrapped around his windpipe.

“Based on the profanity that’s come out of your mouth in the past twenty-four hours, I can only conclude that you think of Diana as one of the guys.” Matthew gave me a warning look when I backed up to intervene. “She’s not. She’s my wife. I would appreciate it if you limited your vulgarity in her presence. Are we clear?”

“Crystal.” Chris looked at him with loathing.

“I’m glad to hear it.” Matthew was at my side in a flash, his hand once more on the dip in my spine where the shadowy firedrake had appeared. “Watch the stairs, mon coeur,” he murmured.

When we reached the ground floor, I sneaked a backward glance at Chris. He was studying Matthew as though he were a strange new life-form—which I suppose he was. My heart sank. Matthew might have won the first few battles, but the war between my best friend and my husband was far from over.

By the time Sarah joined us in the kitchen, her hair exuded the scents of tobacco and the hop vine that was planted against the porch railings. I waved my hand in front of my nose—cigarette smoke was one of the few things that still triggered nausea this late in my pregnancy—and made coffee. When it was ready, I poured the pot’s steaming contents into mugs for Sarah, Chris, and Fernando. Matthew and I stuck to ordinary water. Chris was the first to break the silence.

“So, Matthew, you and Dr. Shephard have been studying vampire genetics for decades in an effort to understand blood rage.”

“Matthew knew Darwin. He’s been studying creature origins and evolution for more than a few decades.” I wasn’t going to tell Chris how much more, but I didn’t want him to be blindsided by Matthew’s age, as I had been.

“We have. My son has been working with us.” Matthew gave me a quelling look.

“Yes, I saw that,” Chris said, a muscle ticking in his cheek. “Not something I’d boast about, myself.”

“Not Benjamin. My other son, Marcus Whitmore.”

“Marcus Whitmore.” Chris made an amused sound. “Covering all the bases, I see. You handle the evolutionary biology and neuroscience, Miriam Shephard is an expert on population genetics, and Marcus Whitmore is known for his study of functional morphology and efforts to debunk phenotypic plasticity. That’s a hell of a research team you’ve assembled, Clairmont.”

“I’m very fortunate,” Matthew said mildly.

“Wait a minute.” Chris looked at Matthew in amazement. “Evolutionary biology. Evolutionary physiology. Population genetics. Figuring out how blood rage is transmitted isn’t your only research objective. You’re trying to diagram evolutionary descent. You’re working on the Tree of Life—and not just the human branches.”

“Is that what the tree in the fireplace is called?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t think so.” Matthew patted her hand.

“Evolution. I’ll be damned.” Chris pushed away from the island. “So have you discovered the common ancestor for humans and you guys?” He waved in our direction. “If by ‘you guys’ you mean creatures—daemons, vampires, and witches—then no.” Matthew’s brow arched.

“Okay. What are the crucial genetic differences separating us?”

“Vampires and witches have an extra chromosome pair,” Matthew explained. “Daemons have a single extra chromosome.”

“You’ve got a genetic map for these creature chromosomes?”

“Yes,” Matthew said.

“Then you’ve probably been working on this little project since before 1990, just to keep up with the humans.”

“That’s right,” Matthew said. “And I’ve been working since 1968 on how blood rage is inherited, if you must know.”

“Of course. You adapted Donahue’s use of family pedigrees to determine gene transmission between generations.” Chris nodded. “Good call. How far along are you with sequencing? Have you located the blood-rage gene?”

Matthew stared at him without replying.

“Well?” Chris demanded.

“I had a teacher like you once,” Matthew said coldly. “He drove me insane.”

“And I have students like you. They don’t last long in my lab.” Chris leaned across the table. “I take it that not every vampire on the planet has your condition. Have you determined exactly how blood rage is inherited, and why some contract it and some don’t?”

“Not entirely,” Matthew admitted. “It’s a bit more complicated with vampires, considering we have three parents.”

“You need to pick up the pace, my friend. Diana is pregnant. With twins.“ Chris looked at me pointedly. “I assume you’ve drawn up full genetic profiles for the two of you and made predictions for inheritance patterns among your offspring, including but not limited to blood rage?”

“I’ve been in the sixteenth century for the best part of a year.” Matthew really disliked being questioned. “I lacked the opportunity.”

“High time we started, then,” Chris remarked blandly.

“Matthew was working on something.” I looked to Matthew for confirmation. “Remember? I found that paper covered with X’s and O’s.”

“X’s and O’s? Lord God Almighty.” This seemed to confirm Chris’s worst fears. “You tell me you have three parents, but you remain married to a Mendelian inheritance model. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re as old as dirt and knew Darwin.”

“I met Mendel once, too,” Matthew said crisply, sounding like an irritated professor himself.

“Besides, blood rage may be a Mendelian trait. We can’t rule that out.”

“Highly unlikely,” Chris said. “And not just because of this three-parent problem—which I’ll have to consider in more detail. It must create havoc in the data.”

“Explain.” Matthew tented his fingers in front of his face.

“I have to give an overview of non-Mendelian inheritance to a fellow of All Souls?” Chris’s eyebrows rose. “Somebody needs to look at the appointment policies at Oxford University.”

“Do you understand a word they’re saying?” Sarah whispered.

“One in three,” I said apologetically.

“I mean gene conversion. Infectious heredity. Genomic imprinting. Mosaicism.” Chris ticked them off on his finger. “Ring any bells, Professor Clairmont, or would you like me to continue with the lecture I give to my undergraduates?”

“Isn’t mosaicism a form of chimerism?” It was the only word I’d recognized.

Chris nodded at me approvingly.

“I’m a chimera—if that helps.”

“Diana,” Matthew growled.

“Chris is my best friend, Matthew,” I said. “And if he’s going to help you determine how blood rage effects vampire-witch reproduction—not to mention find a cure for the disease—he needs to know everything. That includes my genetic test results, by the way.”

“That information can be deadly in the wrong hands,” Matthew said.

“Matthew is right,” Chris agreed.

“I’m so glad you think so.” Matthew’s words dripped acid.

“Don’t patronize me, Clairmont. I know the dangers of human-subject research. I’m a black man from Alabama and grew up in the shadow of Tuskegee.” Chris turned to me. “Don’t hand over your genetic information to anybody outside this room—even if they’re wearing a white coat. Especially if they’re wearing a white coat, come to think of it.”

“Thanks for your input, Christopher,” Matthew said stiffly. “I’ll be sure to pass your ideas on to the rest of my team.”

“So what are we going to do about all this?” Fernando asked. “There may not have been any urgency before, but now . . .” He looked to Matthew for guidance.

“The Bad Seed’s breeding program changes everything,” Chris proclaimed before Matthew could speak. “First we have to figure out if blood rage really is what makes conception possible or if it’s a combination of factors. And we need to know the likelihood of Diana’s children contracting the disease.

We’ll need the witch and the vampire genetic maps for that.”

“You’ll need my DNA, too,” I said quietly. “Not all witches can reproduce.”

“Do you need to be a good witch? A bad witch?” Chris’s silly jokes usually made me smile, but not tonight.

“You need to be a weaver,” I replied. “You’re going to need to sequence my genome in particular and compare it to that of other witches. And you’ll need to do the same for Matthew and vampires who don’t have blood rage. We have to understand blood rage well enough to cure it, or Benjamin and his children will continue to be a threat.”

“Okay, then.” Chris slapped his thighs. “We need a lab. And help. Plenty of data and computer time, too. I can put my people on this.”

“Absolutely not.” Matthew shot to his feet. “I have a lab, too. Miriam has been working on the problems of blood rage and the creature genomes for some time.”

“Then she should come here immediately and bring her work with her. My students are good, Matthew. The best. They’ll see things you and I have been conditioned not to see.”

“Yes. Like vampires. And witches.” Matthew ran his fingers through his hair. Chris looked alarmed at the transformation in his tidy appearance. “I don’t like the idea of more humans knowing about us.”

Matthew’s words reminded me who did need to know about Benjamin’s latest message. “Marcus.

We need to tell Marcus.”

Matthew dialed his number.

“Matthew? Is everything all right?” Marcus said as soon as he picked up the call.

“Not really. We have a situation.” Matthew quickly told him about Benjamin and the witch he was keeping hostage. Then he told Marcus why.

“If I send you the Web address, will you have Nathaniel figure out how to monitor Benjamin’s feed 24/7? And if he could find where the signal is originating from, that would save a lot of time,” Matthew said.

“Consider it done,” Marcus replied.

No sooner had Matthew disconnected than my own cell phone rang.

“Who now?” I said, glancing at the clock. The sun had barely risen. “Hello?”

“Thank God you’re awake” Vivian Harrison said, relieved.

“What’s wrong?” My black thumb prickled.

“We’ve got trouble,” she said grimly.

“What kind of trouble?” I asked. Sarah pressed her ear against the receiver next to mine. I tried to flap her away.

“I received a message from Sidonie von Borcke,” Vivian said. “Who is Sidonie von Borcke?” I’d never heard the name before. “One of the Congregation’s witches,” Vivian and Sarah said in unison.

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