Dark Hunger


CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX



"What? What?" I was surrounded by shrill, cawing ravens beating the air with their frantic movements. Ah... no. That was unkind. I was surrounded by my mother-in-law, my queen's best friend, and my sister-in-law. I had not realized I could feel so fully surrounded by three women smaller and weaker than I. "This cannot be news. Of course I fear the queen. That is why she is queen."

"Young man, love isn't about-"

"This isn't the nineteenth century, you flapping d-wait. When were you even born?"

"See? See? My Betsy-related ambivalence is entirely justified! The king of the vampires is scared of her!"

I held out my hands in as placating a manner as I could manage. I had no time to deal with a mob mentality. Also, when the mob was women, I feared the mob mentality. "Will it assuage your tension if I tell you I fear her in a loving way?"

"No!" Jessica yelped.

"Actually, that does make it better for me," Dr. Taylor admitted.

"Eric Sinclair!" my sister-in-law nearly screamed. She was running her hands through her hair and shaking her head. She looked quite deranged. "You telling me you're scared of the vampire queen is scaring me to death! That does not make me feel better! That makes me want to leave her where she is forever!"

"Ah. About that." I took off my outer coat, folded it in half, and hung it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. I was not certain what would happen next, but wanted the increased mobility in any case. "I insist you return my queen at once."

"Maybe it's battered spouse syndrome. Sure, she beats on him, but he loves her anyway," Jessica murmured to Dr. Taylor. "Sinclair's got Stockholm syndrome."

I quelled a snort. Laura was still seated at the table, her hands braced against the ceramic tiles, glaring up at me. She looked equal parts angry, cornered, and defensive. "Where is she? And how will you return her to me?"

"Us," Jessica corrected. When we looked at her, she shrugged. "Fine. Him. Whatever."

"I'd think you'd be enjoying the peace and quiet," Laura muttered.

I stared down at her until she met my gaze. "I am, and that is irrelevant. You have taken what I love most. I will not survive without her. You are killing me. Do you understand? You are killing me." I looked at her, this beautiful woman, this terror, this child, this monster, this beauty. "Regardless of the love and care my wife has for you, do not think I will not avenge my own murder."

Laura held my gaze for a few more seconds, then glanced away. Before I could press the issue I heard a most unwelcome sound. For all her power, Laura had weaknesses I could use. Weaknesses I was using. I sensed she would bend to me without much more pressure. I did not desire a crowd and, beyond that, could not think why Tina had disregarded my text. "We are getting far afield. Laura, why are you here?"

She opened her mouth. She heard the screech of tires outside and a fury of slamming doors. She closed her mouth.

Dammit. Dammit.

"Huh." Dr. Taylor frowned. "Clive and I don't have a date. And the book club doesn't meet here this week. We meet-"

"It is open," I called, so Tina would refrain from kicking the door down. Then, to my mother-in-law: "I apologize. It's inappropriate for me to invite others to your home."

"If it keeps my door from getting kicked in, invite away." At my small smile, she added, "It's the only reason you would've been rude."

I rose from the table. "Pardon me, ladies." Alas, not quick enough. The front door opened and there were hurrying footsteps in the hallway. It was a narrow hallway, running parallel to the living room, past the half bath (hee!), and then spilling its guests, in this instance Tina, into the kitchen.

"You!" was how she greeted the Antichrist.

"Stop that," I said mildly. "I received your message. Did you not receive mine?"

"I sensed duress," she lied. That was not one of her powers.

"She's lying!" The hallway had spilled Dr. Spangler into the kitchen right behind her. "She saw where you guys were and wanted to Hulk out all over the Antichrist. Hi, everybody."

"Tina, you can't park like that in the middle of the-hey, move it or lose it, Marc. So both of you have things to move or lose." Detective Berry waved. "Hi."

Tina, meanwhile, was now standing over the Antichrist. She had neglected her winter jacket and was wearing an old pleated skirt, bare legs, a pair of Elizabeth's saddle shoes that had not yet been donated, and a turtleneck several sizes too large. In fact, now that I took a closer look, it was my-

"If I hadn't made her grab that out of the dryer, she'd be yelling at Laura in her bra," Marc whispered to Detective Berry.

"So you're the one the straight guys are super pissed at? Because show me the harm in Tina yelling at the Antichrist in her bra."

"You hope the yelling will degenerate into pulling hair and then a tickle fight, don't you?"

"I'm not apologizing for that," Berry replied easily.

Tina was oblivious of the turtleneck-, brassiere-, and tickle-fight-related whispers. "How dare you come here without the queen? Did you think to taunt Dr. Taylor? Of all the inappropriate places for you to go! Why are you here?"

"That was about as far as we got before you came in," Dr. Taylor said. "Sit down before you combust."

"It's okay, Tina," Jess assured her. "She didn't dump Betsy into the past. The universe is probably safe for at least the next couple of hours. Also, please note I'm holding an innocent baby. So nobody start any shit."

Sage advice. Yes, this was one of the oddest confrontations I had ever taken part in, involving no less than the Antichrist, the beloved aunt of my childhood, an infant, a Civil War scholar, a billionaire, a homicide detective, and a dead physician.

"If anyone does start some shit, it will be me. The rest of you will keep your shit under control. I am the only one who should start shit of any sort."

"Everything's fine," Dr. Taylor said, standing to receive her "guests." "We're just talking. But I think it's sweet that you all charged to the rescue."

"I told her she should have stayed out of it," Marc tattled. He wandered up to Jessica and pulled something small and orange out of his jacket pocket. "Here. Drink this. You're low on folic acid and potassium."

She gifted him with one of her dazzling smiles, popped the top, jiggled BabyJon over to her other shoulder, and swigged.

"You told her to stay out of it," Dr. Taylor prompted, "and then followed her?"

"I've watched everything on our DVR," he said, as if that was an explanation, "and Amazon hasn't dropped off my new books yet."

The Antichrist, it gave me great pleasure to note, looked like a cat surrounded by Rottweilers. "You know, I recently lost my mother," she began, and was actually booed by Jessica and Marc. And blllrrppp'd by BabyJon.

"Totally different thing," Marc began.

"Apples and orange juice," Jessica gurgled.

"This isn't about you," Dr. Taylor said with simple severity. "Although, now that I think about it, some of it is."

"Your mother was trying to kill the queen!"

Ah. Tina was cross.

My smallish maiden aunt (I must, I must stop thinking of Christina Caresse as I did in my childhood) towered over the Antichrist (Laura had remained seated). "That seems to be the part of the story you most like to leave out. Your mother and the-that other woman-essentially destroyed the future."

"That's the second time you've danced around something I haven't been told," Dr. Taylor observed. "When Elizabeth does get back, we're having a long talk."

A problem, I surmised, for another day.

"Before the two of them could get started this time around, the queen put an end to it. No one yet understands how that came about, but what we all know to be true is that your mother tried to kill our queen. If Her Majesty hadn't put an end to your mother, I would have."

"Okay," the Antichrist said.

When a sword made of hellfire didn't come swinging out of nowhere and remove her head from her shoulders, Tina blinked and we eyed each other for a moment. Old friends, our telepathy had nothing to do with the supernatural.

Well, that went better than I expected.

I am relieved you have not been killed. Also, we'll discuss why you ignored my text to stay away.

"So anyway," Laura continued, "I came over to tell Dr. Taylor what I think is going on with Jessica's pregnancy."

"This isn't how I expected this to go," Marc confessed. He and Detective Berry were in the corner. Detective Berry kept shoving Marc behind him, and Marc kept peeking over his shoulder. "And I'm dead, dammit!" He gave Detective Berry a shove that nearly sent the man sprawling. "What exactly are you saving me from?"

"And I want to hear all about it," Dr. Taylor said. "But if you didn't steal my daughter to punish her, why did you?"

"I kind of had to," she explained. She seemed sincere and remorseful and hurt and angry. To my annoyance, I felt sympathy begin to slide past my anger. "Hell's a mess and I don't know what to do with it. Betsy knew when she killed my mom that I'd probably have to take her place. I just wanted her to really see what she left me with. They're going to be more scared of her than she is of them. I'll get her back pretty soon."

"Oh." Jessica rubbed BabyJon's back; the infant had dozed off around the time Tina was waiting to be decapitated. "That works for me, I guess. It's not like Bets can't take care of herself. It was still kind of a dick move, though."

"Don't say dick in front of the baby," Marc scolded. He removed items from another parka pocket. "And eat this," he added, handing her a strawberry yogurt and plastic spoon.

"You've turned yourself into a walking fridge," Detective Berry observed. And it was true. Marc had said more than once that he no longer felt the cold. But his parka-something handed down from his father-was sturdy, the color of crushed green olives, riddled with pockets, smelled of sawdust and feathers, and worked very well as a refrigeration unit.

"Like I was saying, I have some idea about Jessica's pregnancy. But..."

"What?" Jessica asked.

"It's just there's not much point telling you about it while they're here." Laura nodded to indicate Jessica, Marc, Tina, Dick, and (eh?) me.

"Oh, I don't agree. You can tell me now because if it's good news they'll be fine, and if it's bad news, they'll be fine, because something is making all of them"-she gestured to our small group-"not care."

"What is this?" I asked sharply. "If there is bad news I insist you tell me at once."

"Because of Betsy's timeline tampering, Jessica's pregnant with any or all of her potential babies at once."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I snapped, and was almost as startled as they were. "Ah... my apologies. I am apparently laboring under some stress."

Of all people, the Antichrist smiled at me. "Don't worry. Betsy's fine, and Jessica's fine, too. There's not as much to worry about as you thought."

Absurdly, that comforted me. I had forgotten another thing about family: when you were with them, it was possible to let your guard down. I was out of practice.

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