“IT’S GREAT to have a balcony overlooking the strip, isn’t it?” a male voice said behind him.
The young Cajun looked over his shoulder at the tall, dark-haired man who leaned against the balcony’s doorjamb. “It’s pretty cool,” Luc said. “Vegas managed to squeeze in even more lights. This is my favorite time of year.”
Arrigo stepped out on the balcony, joining Luc at the rail. From behind his back, he produced a plastic sprig of mistletoe with a flourish. “I know you were lamenting the lack of holiday decorations.”
Luc held up a hand. “I know you’re not Christian.”
“But you live here, too, so I brought you this.” Arrigo dangled it over Luc’s curly blond crown.
Luc grinned. “It’s the one holiday thing that you’ll benefit from.”
Arrigo whispered a kiss on Luc’s lips. “Why settle for a silly Santa when I can get a license to kiss you senseless?” The older man pulled Luc against him, kissing him more demandingly this time.
Luc pressed a hand against Arrigo’s chest. “We’re outside, Arri.”
“And how many stories up? Who could possibly see us?” He nibbled Luc’s neck, a hand pressing against Luc’s crotch. “The only thing you have to worry about is getting so lightheaded that you fall over the edge.”
Luc snorted. “Someone thinks very highly of himself.”
“He always does,” a feminine voice said.
The lovers turned, seeing the redhead lounging against the balcony door. Siobhan grinned at them, sauntering out onto the balcony. Luc still felt a little shy around the Irish vampire. He had always been bashful around women, and with one who had been a vampire for so long and who knew Arrigo so well, he felt on uneven footing.
“Sorry to interrupt. Are you two just going to play around all night, doing nothing?” Siobhan leaned against the railing next to Luc, looking out over the city.
“Maybe we’re about to do something you don’t want to see.” Arrigo put an arm around Luc. He kissed the side of the young Cajun’s neck. Siobhan just cocked an eyebrow.
“She might want to watch, given the way you two are.” Luc elbowed Arrigo. “Don’t encourage her. We were going to go to Taabu’s and help her decorate for the holidays.”
“She does do more of a secular Yule theme,” Arrigo reminded him. “Besides, I have paperwork I should at least look at before Taabu kills me and plants my head on top of the Christmas tree.”
“There’s a lovely image.” Luc scowled. “Siobhan, you can help me convince Arri to decorate here.”
“Good luck with that one. He’s an old pagan. Get him to celebrate Saturnalia with you.” Siobhan patted Luc’s arm. “You’ll like that one.”
The Cajun offered up an exaggerated sigh, heading back into the apartment. “I’m still buying a tree.”
“I have no problems with that,” Arrigo replied.
The trio headed off the Strip to the office Arrigo owned and shared with Taabu, who, like Luc, was a refugee from New Orleans after Katrina. Taabu made her living as a psychic and, together with Arrigo and a few others, did ghost investigations. The young woman was training Luc in the art of storytelling because she wanted to branch out into ghost tours, and he could easily use the work. Luc knew all too well that his stunted education limited his options. Arrigo was helping him there, and in the meantime he’d found Luc a job as a valet at one of the casinos.
The office was oddly busy. Luc hadn’t thought of Christmas as prime psychic time—that was Halloween if you asked him—but Taabu’s inner door was shut, so she had someone back there getting a reading. Three more people waited in the incense-filled outer office, serenaded by orchestral Christmas music. Luc had to admit that as much as he loved the holiday, he was relieved not to hear the ubiquitous Christmas carols. One more rendition of Frosty the Snowman and he might snap. Granted, he’d never actually seen snow. Arrigo had promised to take him to the mountains in the new year so he could.
Siobhan and Luc finished putting out the candles and silver and blue floral arrangements Taabu had provided, making sure to get a few in Arrigo’s room. Luc decided, pagan or not, Arrigo could use a holiday candle. The older vampire ignored his lover, actually doing the paperwork and bill paying like he should.
Suddenly Arrigo and Siobhan stiffened. Luc looked at them, confused, before he too felt it: a sense of raw power. Vampires could psychically sense one another, an ability—as with most vampiric skills—that got better with age. The older vampires could often estimate the age of another vampire and how far away it was just by how the other vampire felt. Luc was aware of Siobhan and Arrigo’s presence regardless of where they were in the apartment, but lost the feel if the older vampires got too far away. For Luc to be feeling the presence of a fifth vampire, not in the building, meant he or she was incredibly old and powerful.
Luc followed Arrigo’s and Siobhan’s gazes out Taabu’s picture window and saw him. Power flowed off him in nearly visible waves. He was on the short side, with dark olive skin, definitely Middle Eastern or Southern Mediterranean. He wore a Santa outfit, an image ruined by his slimness and the long dark hair that fell to his shoulders in waves. He spotted them through the window and grinned.
“Ho, ho, ho.” He held his belly as he laughed, but it didn’t make him look any more like Santa Claus.
Arrigo darted out of the office, his friends following him. “Fadil!” Arrigo called out, grabbing the man in a hug.
“It’s been a long time,” the stranger said. “Perhaps we should go to your place so we can talk.”
“This office is partly mine, but we should probably go to my apartment. I live on the Strip. I’ll leave Taabu a note since she’s in with a client,” Arrigo said.
The three older vampires talked as they walked the still-busy streets back to the Sky Las Vegas. Luc remained quiet during the long elevator ride to Arrigo’s impressive condo. All four of them crowded onto the balcony, the lights of the Strip, plus all of those for the holidays, blinking below them.
“Now, Fadil, tell us what you’re doing here!” Arrigo demanded.
“Relax, my friend. My story will wait. Get me a beer and tell me how you two came to be keeping company with a fledgling,” Fadil said, tipping back in his chair and propping his Santa-booted feet up on the table. Siobhan went to get the beer.
“This is Luc St. John. I sort of inherited him.” Arrigo clapped Luc on the shoulder. “Though there are many other, more enjoyable reasons to keep him.”
“Who made him?”
“Eleni Lavrushka did this to me. She thought Arri and I were lovers. She did it to punish him,” Luc said, his shoulders hunching as he stared at the balcony floor. “Guess maybe we were working up to that, but we weren’t lovers.”
“Eleni is what Yelizaveta is calling herself now,” Arrigo put in quickly.
“Eleni... shouldn’t really surprise me. She has been getting more and more out of hand of late.”
“Who are you, Fadil? Obviously, Arri and Siobhan know you,” Luc said, curiosity battling down his obvious distress at talking about Eleni.
“I know them well. I fathered Arri,” Fadil reported, slapping Arrigo’s arm.
Luc startled. “You made Arri? But he’s so old!”
“Thanks,” Arrigo grumbled.
“Yes, he is, isn’t he?” Fadil smirked. “I was born Imhotep, before the first pyramid was built in the Valley of the Kings.”
“That old? And here I was calling him Vieux Giancarlo!” Luc laughed.
“Well, he is old.” Fadil took his feet off the table, leaning toward Luc. “So, am I a little less imposing than I was at first?”
Luc grinned weakly. “Barely.”
“Now tell us why you’re here, Fadil!” Arrigo demanded as Siobhan came back with the beers.
The ancient vampire took a long pull from the bottle of lager. “It’s Christmas!”
“Do you expect me to believe you've shown up now, after all this time, just to spread Christmas cheer?” Arrigo’s dark eyebrows arched.
“Yes, and to call a meeting of our kind, mostly the old ones and whoever they have in tow.”
“So why are all the vamps meeting here?” Siobhan asked.
“Mikhael has discovered something,” Fadil said simply.
“Is it something about the virus that causes vampirism?” Siobhan took a swig of her beer.
“Yes. Mikhael thinks he may have found a cure,” Fadil announced. Arrigo nearly dropped his beer, and Siobhan’s eyes widened so much she looked like an anime character. Luc felt a fine tremble overcoming him that he was powerless to stop.
“A cure?” Siobhan breathed.
“Would it reverse our vampiric state?” Arrigo asked.
Fadil spread his hands. “That’s what Mikhael thinks. He can’t be sure.”
“But why? This is immortality,” Arrigo argued.
“Not everyone became a vampire voluntarily, like you, Arri. I didn’t ask for this.” Luc’s voice sounded weak even to his own ears.
Fadil nodded. “That’s why I put out a call to gather. While I wouldn’t trade immortality for the world, I don’t have the right to make that decision for everyone.”
“Would you do it, Arri?” Luc turned to his lover. “Go back to being mortal?”
“Never!” Arrigo waved off that idea. “I’ve loved every age I’ve lived through. Granted, there have been times when I’ve grown tired of it. Those are the times I go look up old friends.”
“As do I,” Fadil put in
“Me, too. Sometimes I get very tired of this, but it beats dying,” Siobhan said.
“You don’t know that!” Luc slapped his thigh. “I believe in Heaven. That’s supposed to be better than here. Granted, if I believe in the exact word of the Bible, being a vampire... drinking blood prevents me from getting there.”
“That would put a damper on the afterlife,” Fadil agreed. “When I was young, the Undead were called the Ka and were feared. It was said if a Ka came back from the dead, it would drink anything from blood, to life, to the soul. That was why we were buried with food and finery, to keep the Ka from returning.” He patted Luc’s knee. “You aren’t alone in having a religious crisis over your new state of being, Luc. I’ve been there. For the most part, all of us have at one time or another. Face it, vampires have never been seen in a favorable light. It was easy to believe the worst about us, even when people actually did believe in us, before Stoker and the rest made us media sensations. We don’t have to kill, but the tales say we do. We aren’t damned, Luc. Most of us are the same sort of person we were before conversion.”
“I know. I guess it would be different if this was something I had wanted. If this cure works... well, I’ll have a very hard decision to make,” he said quietly. “I think... I need to go out for some air. Excuse me.” Luc got up shakily.
No one tried to stop him. Luc went out into the crowded city streets. Humanity streamed around him. He couldn’t have felt more isolated if he had been dropped into a pit and forgotten. He knew Arrigo wasn’t going to understand why he might choose humanity over eternity. He could see it in his friend’s face. He made his way down the Strip. He wasn’t sure which bar he wanted to go to, but he wanted to be in one. Luc needed to drink and not think about Fadil and his promise of a possible cure.
Luc had usually avoided bars since his vampiric conversion. He’d lost his head for drink, and he especially avoided strip bars, since getting excited spurred his vampiric lusts even worse than his physical ones. Tonight, he didn’t care. Maybe he would lose control and show his elders that he was not fit to be a vampire.
“Hi, cutie, looking for a party?” a voice said at his elbow.
Luc turned, seeing the face of a young blond. He was slightly overweight, but cute. He had tourist written all over him, and the smell of alcohol overwhelmed Luc’s senses. “Know where one is?” Luc figured, why not? From the looks the young man was giving him, he suspected the party was going to be in their pants, and quickly.
“This way. My friends and I got a room,” he said, pulling Luc out the door. He led them to the Tropicana and up to the second floor. Putting the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door, he shut it.
“There’s beer in the bathroom. Go get us some,” he demanded.
Luc found the beer in a tub half full of melting ice and water. He fished out two cans and went back into the bedroom. The young man was on the bed, and had turned on something senseless on the TV as background noise.
“Have anything to say?” he asked, pursing his lips at Luc, who gave the young man a beer and took a heady pull of his own.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler,” Luc replied.
“Is that Spanish?” He kissed Luc’s cheek
“French!” Luc said sharply. “I’m Cajun.”
“French, even better. You guys are supposed to be great lovers,” the blond said, before tackling Luc back onto the mattress, spilling beer everywhere. Luc didn’t protest.