The six and a half hours between the sound of the explosion and sunset were among the longest of Nick's very long life. There was no question of going back to sleep, and nearly an hour passed before there was any response on the telephone. He had never heard an operator's voice shake like that. It was impossible to connect him to the police, she explained apologetically, or indeed to anyone. All the lines were engaged.
"They say it must have been a bomb," she told him. "Near the Ferry Building, during the parade. I'm sorry, sir, but if you need the police, it'll be faster to go out and find an officer."
"I'll do that, then. Thank you."
In the sitting room, Janette stood by the fireplace, straightening the impeccable bric-a-brac on the mantel. LaCroix didn't even look up from his newspaper as Nick entered, to all appearances completely indifferent to the disturbance.
He passed on the little he had learned, and Janette shook her head. "We came to this city to be as far as possible from the chaos devouring Europe. It seems nowhere is far enough."
"Tens of thousands have died in the Somme," LaCroix observed. "A single explosion in San Francisco is rather tawdry and common by comparison. Though both events are lacking in imagination."
"Half the city must have been there." Even as he spoke, Nick knew his master wouldn't care, but it had to be said. "Heaven knows how many have died, or been grievously wounded. Innocent people. Probably children."
"It's called Preparedness Day, is it not?" LaCroix finally folded the newspaper and set it aside, with the headlines about incomprehensible numbers of British dead still clearly visible. "I can think of no more effective way to prepare a complacent city for war. Can you?"
"War," Janette scoffed. "The word hardly seems sufficient any longer. They should invent a new one to go with the machines they create to wage it."
The jaded bite of her tone masked how shaken she was. Nick knew better than to mention it, even to offer comfort. "As if the old weapons weren't destructive enough. At least when we had to see a man's face to kill him..."
LaCroix was watching, waiting with great interest for him to finish the sentence, and Nick saw no need to oblige him. What was the point, really? "Never mind. I'll be in the library."
It was impossible to concentrate on reading, but he gave it his best effort, and eventually the clock's hands crept their way to eight-thirty. The sky still shaded from vivid orange, up through rose and into violet when he slipped out the servants' entrance and set his steps toward Market Street. Traffic was nearly nonexistent, his few fellow pedestrians nervous and subdued. Near Steuart, a policeman accosted him, gruff but polite. "The street's closed here, sir. Respect for the dead."
"Of course," Nick answered. "I understand. Good evening, Officer."
He considered stepping around the corner and approaching from above, but there was still too much light in the sky. Those working at the scene of the horror might see him. They had their work cut out for them; he could return at his leisure later in the night. He wasn't even sure why he wanted to see it, or that want was the right word at all. But something in him sought to understand. He didn't know if seeing the aftermath would help with that, but there was only one way to find out.
Part of his restlessness was hunger, he knew well enough. While sharing a household with LaCroix, he didn't dare patronize any butcher too often -- more than one had paid for Nick's business with his life -- and without a standing arrangement, deflecting curiosity about the nature of his purchases was always a challenge. There was a shop in Chinatown he had intended to visit the night before, but LaCroix hadn't let him out of his sight. As long as he was out, he could take the opportunity now. Another mile-and-a-half walk through the summer evening wasn't unwelcome either, even in the strangely charged atmosphere hanging over the city.
The first time, it had taken Nick several hours to locate Zhang Wei's cramped establishment, in an alley that was nameless on city maps but referred to by the locals as Black Dog Street. By the time he had found a passerby both willing to talk to him and patient enough to decipher his clumsy intonation, the shop had been closed and he had gone hungry.
He knew his way around a bit better now, and made his way through the foot traffic as unobtrusively as any white man could. Despite the afternoon's events, business in the crowded district was going on more or less as usual. Some people here might have taken a day off to see the parade, but most of those who worked after dark lived too close to the bone for such a luxury. It was to serve them that Zhang Wei's doors stayed open so late, until nine-thirty or ten most nights, though the taciturn man's reasons for doing so were his own. He didn't volunteer an explanation to the strange Westerner who occasionally turned up to pay well for the blood of a cow or pig, and Nick was hardly in a position to ask.
Zhang Wei didn't exactly smile when Nick came in his door, but he looked... satisfied to see him. Five minutes, several coins, and no more than a dozen words later, Nick bowed and left with a stoppered tin jug. Pig this time, less than a day old, and it smelled far more appetizing than it should. He rejoined the pedestrians, making a conscious effort to walk no faster than anyone else on his way to the smaller alley that branched off Black Dog and angled around a dark corner. It was risky, but less so than taking it home. A mortal who happened to see him could be made to forget. Bringing it into LaCroix's house had far more unpredictable results.
As soon as he reached the back of the alley, he drained a third of the jug before lowering it. He felt a trickle at the corner of his mouth and reached up to wipe it away, absurdly self-conscious, though table manners hardly mattered next to the nature of the meal, and in any case he was alone.
His hand froze inches from his face. He wasn't alone. Human footsteps, a human heartbeat, at the bend in the alley. He opened his eyes to see a startled woman holding a bucket of kitchen waste, her appearance neater and more respectable than he would expect of any woman out alone in this neighborhood, let alone in this alley.
His eyes, his fangs, the blood on his face. The woman's mortal eyes strained through the gloom, but there was no doubt that it was enough.
If she could see him, then he could catch her gaze. He focused on her heartbeat, felt the invisible thread link them. "You did not see this."
"Oh, but I did." Her little smile held a thousand secrets. Calm and unhurried, she dumped her bucket in a corner, then turned back to Nick. "This is no place for civilized people to talk. Will you follow?"