The first patient was a man who appeared to be in his early thirties, but whose body had aged from the cancer I could smell before we cleared the threshold. Vlad took one look at the pictures around his bedside showing a much healthier version of the man with his wife and children, then walked out.
“Not this guy?” I asked, with a heavy pang as I glanced back at the sleeping man.
“Too many entanglements,” he said, holding up a hand at my expression. “What I’m offering is not a way back to their former lives. It’s risk, frequent loneliness, and permanent removal from everyone they know. That means I don’t choose fathers, or forcing them to abandon their families would make me even crueler than my reputation paints me to be.”
“But can’t we . . . do something for him?” I said, hanging back.
Vlad sighed. “Even if you distributed pints of your blood to every person here, in their condition, you’d only be adding weeks or months to their lives. Not saving them, as you want to. We’re vampires, not God. We can only take a few, solitary people that the world has given up on and offer them another choice.”
The coldly logical part of me accepted this even as the rest of me ached for the people we saw, both in this facility and the other three we visited. Out of the four hospices, Vlad found two people that matched his requirements, and out of those, only one wanted what he offered. To that man, Vlad gave a mouthful of his blood before instructing him to wait there until one of his people picked him up. The other got a new memory where he was never visited by strangers who broke the news that vampires were real, let alone the offer to become one.
The next places we went to were homeless shelters, where Vlad used his mind-reading abilities to narrow down recruits. He had a bigger harvest from those stops, eventually netting five guys who were left with instructions to wait for retrieval by Vlad’s guards later. Finally, he took me to the last place I expected to look for potential new members of his line.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary was a huge complex bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River. With guards patrolling on horseback and an entrance that resembled a visitors’ welcome center, it looked more like a working ranch than a prison, if you ignored the high fences with layers of razor wire coiled around the tops.
Unlike the other places, Vlad was here for one specific person. “Clergy to see Darryl Meadows,” he told the guard, the green in his gaze circumventing any requests for identification or questions since Vlad came off as anything but pious.
“Who’s Darryl Meadows?” I asked as we drove to the section of the large compound that housed the Death Row inmates.
“Possibly an innocent man,” Vlad replied. “He was imprisoned over twenty years ago on scant evidence and questionable testimony, but since all forensic evidence was lost, he can’t request DNA testing to prove his innocence.”
“You sound like you know a lot about him.”
“I saw a documentary on the death penalty that mentioned him, among other inmates.” At my raised brows, he continued almost defensively, “It was late, you were asleep, and there was nothing else on.”
It was such a normal, human complaint that I laughed, imagining Vlad flipping through channels while muttering under his breath about the lack of decent viewing options. Then I added “secret documentary buff” to the list of things I knew about him. Like, for example, his love of vampire movies. His hatred of Dracula retellings aside, he’d once told me that the varied portrayals of vampirism in film amused him to no end.
“Well, it’s easy enough to find out if Darryl is innocent,” I said, holding up my right hand.
“Yes,” Vlad said, his gaze glinting. “If he is, reading his mind will reveal if decades of unjust imprisonment have ruined him, or hardened him into the kind of man I’m looking for.”
We needed more mind control to get through the additional security checkpoints before we were face-to-face with Darryl Meadows, a lean, handsome African-American man whose hazelnut brown gaze regarded us with suspicion when the guard left him alone in the room with us. Some mind control by Vlad ensured our privacy, plus he’d mesmerized the officers who monitored the video feed from the room. Thus, I didn’t hesitate to break the first rule of visitation by reaching over the metal table and touching one of Darryl’s manacled hands.
“He didn’t do it,” I said a few minutes later when I was back in my own mind. Darryl’s worst sin had been not helping a fellow inmate when the man was jumped and murdered, but since a guard had participated in the crime, I couldn’t blame him.
Darryl let out a weary scoff. “I’ve been saying that for over twenty years, but no one cares. Who’re you, anyway? More attorneys? People from the Innocence Project?”
“We’re vampires,” Vlad said with his usual bluntness.
I let out a small laugh to fill the instant, disbelieving silence. “Bet you didn’t expect to meet two of those today.”
“Guard,” Darryl called out, sounding pissed instead of tired now. “Get these crazy motherfuckers out of—”
His voice cut off abruptly when Vlad’s eyes went green and he smiled wide enough to show his fangs.
“I don’t have time for a detailed explanation, so understand this,” Vlad said, staring into Darryl’s eyes. “Vampires are real. We’ve existed for millennia, and we’re not the only supernatural species above humans on the food chain.”