Providence. A city of secrets, each stranger than the last. The year is 1929 and the vampire family Giovanni seek to maintain their version of order in this darkened mirror of New England, where ghosts and vampires are not the worst one can encounter in the long hours of the night.
At the Fratello Brothers Funeral Home, Antonio steps inside his office and moves aside a bookcase to access a hidden room. There’s no real mechanism involved. He’s got casters on the bottom and a rough little track, but most of the work is by main force alone. The puissant vampire physically lifts the solid mahogany bookcase out of his way, settling it back into place when he’s done. He’s glued down most of its books (who has time to read all that stuff, anyway?) and has hand-holds in the back so he can more easily shift the six-foot-tall piece of furniture from the other side.
It’s not the prettiest door to a secret passage, but it’s functional enough for Antonio. Sure, he could have had Menecrites get one of his contractors to fix a door up real nice – but then others in the family would know about the room, and the whole point’s about secret spaces.
The hidden room beyond the bookcase isn’t much – just an old broom closet. Reynaldo probably knows about it. The old ghoul originally belonged to Antonio’s sire, Scapelli, and he’s been around longer than most of the family’s full-blooded vampires – at least as far as the Providence branch is concerned. Reynaldo knows more than he lets on about pretty much everything, but over the centuries, he’s also learned to hold his tongue – a valuable quality in a family like the Giovanni.
Antonio knows he probably doesn’t have to keep this work-room a secret. It’s more for personal reasons that he does, and he’s all right with that. Antonio’s research into the family’s trade-mark skill of necromancy is something he likes being private about. Not too long ago, Antonio could barely whistle up a shade, let alone bind a ghost. A dirty little secret – and one engineered by his scheming sire, Scapelli.
Scapelli had manipulated Antonio’s heritage over generations of family Giovanni’s living relatives, forcing marriages and cross-pairings the way other men might breed prized hounds. Some he brought across as vampires, others he kept as breeding stock, using each and every one of them to forward his own inscrutable aims.
Scapelli felt he’d gotten a real prize with Antonio – the Giovanni was a remorseless killing machine, strategic, efficient, and brutally strong. But the old bastard hadn’t wanted brains in his lapdog, so he’d done his damnedest to keep his protégé stunted in all other arenas, the better to rule through Antonio as the power behind the throne.
Except Scapelli erred in cultivating Antonio’s hard-headed pride. No one makes a fool of Antonio Giovanni and lives to brag about it – not even the elder vampire who’d pruned their twisted branch of the family tree since the time of the Medicis. Antonio made sure that Scapelli was good and dead. He didn’t do the deed himself – blood-bound to Scapelli, he couldn’t have no matter how much he wanted to – but when an opportunity for freedom arose, Antonio did what Scapelli had groomed him always to do: he seized it, and he never looked back.
Now free of the old patriarch’s corrupt influence, Antonio does his damnedest to be the vampire the family needs to rule the city of Providence – not merely a cold-blooded killer (though there’s surely a place for that), but someone with skills on all fronts and a head for politics that would have put Machiavelli to shame.
Antonio strikes a match against the wall and lights one of the candles on a nearby shelf. He doesn’t need much light, and the room is small. One candle is more than enough.
There’s an old steamer trunk pushed up against one wall with a piece of silk cloth draped over its pitted surface – nothing so formal as an altar, simply a workspace, a little prettied up. There’s a ritual dagger and a chalice for offerings of blood. But the thing he’s interested in is a woman’s brooch. Silver, slightly tarnished, with one leaf bent, it’s a single, delicate rose. It serves as a fetter for Antonio’s favored wraith.
The spirit is as enamored with the taciturn Giovanni as he is with her. A woman who, in life, fell victim to her own father’s ceaseless rage, Nadia sees Antonio not as her oppressor, but as her savior. He’d freed her from the place where she’d known only suffering and grief, hunting down her father and making him pay.
The hard-headed Doge of Providence spent weeks secretly frequenting the site of Nadia’s murder, struggling to pierce the Veil so they could speak. He hadn’t planned on anything more than using her. That’s what the family did with most wraiths – summoned them, bound them, compelled them to serve. But once he got the hang of communicating, Antonio found himself growing fond of Nadia. Now a bond lingers between them, the unliving and the dead. The wraith is not a servitor, but a friend.
She is also the only woman Antonio feels that he can love without remorse. He’s a brutal man, and he knows it. With his volatile temper and his violent way of life, he’s left behind a bloody swath of people he’s tried to hold close. He has a marriage of convenience to a mortal woman arranged at childhood by Scapelli – and while the hardened former hit-man sometimes wishes he could love his wife, the best he can do most nights is keep her safe from harm.
But Nadia – Nadia is already dead. She’s lived through the worst life had to offer and come out the other side. More than that, she sees Antonio for exactly what he is – and it has never made her flinch.
Antonio takes up her rose, running his thick, blunt thumb along the delicate filigree of its stem. A thing of beauty, fragile and precious. A symbol of all the things which – beyond the walls of this secret room – Antonio is denied.
He’s too practical to brood on it for long. Every moment he delays, Alexander builds his power and the cultists do who-knows-what in the Old Whately place. There’s work to be done, and the dawn doesn’t wait.
“Nadia,” he calls to the air as he cradles the rose in his palm. “I got work for you, doll.”
Almost instantly, she fades into view. She wears the memory of a flattering knee-length dress, her shapely legs crossed primly as she sits upon the trunk. Death has leached most of the color from the fabric and from her skin, but hints of auburn cling to the carefully dressed waves of her hair.
“Whatcha want, tough guy?” Her voice is all syrup and honey upon the air.
Antonio wastes a moment just looking at her. Nadia’s a real swanky gal, built like a starlet. It’s a shame her father robbed the world of her light.
“I got some trouble with that pinko Toreador, LeMourru,” Antonio says. “He’s holed up in the old Whately murder house, gathering power before he makes another move. I need eyes on his people so we know the score before we bust the place up.”
“You know I’m always up for a favor for you.” She drifts from the trunk, circling behind him in the small room. He feels her presence near his shoulder like the promise of a touch.
“He’s got a gang of cultists – mortals. Probably ghouled. I want to know what they eat, where they sleep, and when they take a dump. There’s a couple of vampires in there, too, more than just LeMourru. Jeff York, for one. I need descriptions. Names.”
Spectral fingers trail idly through his hair as she listens. Softly, she murmurs, “York. I remember that one. He can see me.”
Antonio nods. He reaches a hand up to her hand. They can’t touch exactly, but her fingers press against his just this side of connecting. He says, “And LeMourru, you remember — that guy’s dangerous. He’s got that oblivion power, nihilism. He can hurt you.”
“He’s hard to look at,” she admits, shifting to his other shoulder. Her voice is a breathless whisper against his ear. “Swirling darkness. Hungry void. I won’t forget what’s attached to him.”
Antonio closes his eyes. At the same time, he curls his fingers tightly around her tarnished silver rose. For a moment, he allows himself to dream of a different life. A life where he doesn’t have to wage campaigns of terror and bloodshed for the sake of the Family. A life where Nadia is still a breathing woman of flesh and blood. A life where his own existence isn’t one circumscribed by endless, violent nights.
Nadia clings to Antonio’s arm. He doesn’t realize how tightly his shoulders have tensed. But she notices. She knows his moods. He takes a breath – he doesn’t have to, except to speak – and exhales slowly. He lets the fantasy life that can never be drift from him like smoke.
“You spy on ‘em, Nadia, but the minute you see LeMourru, you beat feet, you hear me?” he says. “I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
With slow reverence, he places her fetter back in its position upon the trunk. The candle gutters and in its dancing shadows, Nadia leans close and presses spectral lips against his cheek. Her kiss is lighter than cobwebs, but it lingers like the burn of a brand. When she retreats, the stuffy little broom closet feels vast and empty as the yawning maw of hell.