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The Way to Dusty Death

From Section One

Rachel stood on the Bow Bridge looking out over the Lake. The hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention and a frisson of unease skittered along her spine. She had learned not to discount these instinctual signals. She turned in a slow circle, her eye cataloguing couples walking, a man jogging with his dog, a crew team practicing their rowing. When she had turned a full circle, she stopped and jumped.

A man stood to her left. He was below average height for a man of this era, standing only about five foot eight, dressed in clothes that were not quite right for the century, with dark hair worn in an anachronistic style, a square face, straight nose and gray green eyes.

Don't look in his eyes, she scolded herself.

Rachel sidled away, dropping her eyes to the water beneath the bridge. Her hand quested into her messenger bag and after a few seconds of searching, she came out with the object she sought. It felt good in her hand and lent the comfort of generations of Matteos who had held it, revered it, used it as a doorway to supplication or simply as a symbol of divine love and faith. She turned sharply, wielding the cross, holding it before her like a shield. The man, who had been moving slowly sideways, matching her movements but keeping a respectable distance, stopped and dropped his eyes to the cast iron beneath his feet. Rachel kept the cross squarely trained on him. She took back a step and another, moving him back as well, until she again stood at the apex of the bridge.

The man, the vampire, she corrected mentally, stood unnaturally still and eerily silent, as if he channeled the water below his feet and absorbed all sound. They stood like this, under this cone of silence, listening only to the pounding rhythm of her own heart, until a youth with music blasting from his earphones ran by. The pulsing beat broke the spell and once again ambient sound intruded, subsuming her internal percussion. Rachel turned to confront him, keeping the cross trained on him in rather the attitude of an aimed gun. He didn't seem cowed; he stood more with an attitude of reverence than fear. She swallowed, working up saliva to free her tongue.

"Who are you?" Her voice cracked a bit. She cleared her throat. "What do you want from me?" She used her stern lecture voice, the one she needed to reach over sometimes rowdy students.

He looked up at her. Rachel gripped the cross more firmly and tensed, gathering her muscles to leap away even though she knew she'd never be fast enough. Lif and Kevin would be angry with her for not heeding all their warnings. Well, they would be angry if she told them about this incident, and she survived the encounter.

He felt compelled to speak, to prolong the contact and not just ghost away on the next blink of her eyes. She was striking, a daisy in a field of weeds, with a natural beauty not often seen in this era of airbrushed perfection. She was vivacious, embodying life like captured sunshine. He found himself drawn to her.

"I am called Richard," he replied in a quiet voice that nevertheless resonated. "I mean you no harm, young one. I only wish to have discourse."

"There won't be any kind of 'course' between us." He had taken a small step closer and Rachel raised the cross again.

"That holy object is unnecessary." He moved back, unwilling to desecrate so old and revered a cross, evidenced by the smooth patina many hands had left behind. "If I meant to harm you, I--"

"Spare me the lies," she cut him off.

"I never lie."

"False platitudes, then."

"That would amount to the same thing in your eyes." He made an eloquent gesture that took in his appearance. "It seems to truth is written about me. You knew instantly I was other than human."

"It's just another thing a city dweller learns to discern," she equivocated.

"Yes, of course."

"Why am I standing here? I've forgotten every lesson I've been taught." Rachel turned to leave.

"Wait, please, may I know how you are called?"

Rachel put on her tough New York persona like a well-worn overcoat. She couldn't take in another stray vampire. Her life was crowded with enough of them already. There was just something about him, though. She turned back to face him.

"My name is my own and I only give it to those of my choosing," she said in a harsh voice not often used.

"Of course," he said again softly.

Effectively dismissed, Richard bunched his muscles, preparing to apply vampire speed to his departure. Rachel chanced to look up, meeting his eyes oh so briefly. She noted the haunted shadows, so similar to those lingering in the depth of Lif's eyes. Seeing that edge of the final depression touched a nerve, activated a place inside her that had to help.

"Rachel, I'm called Rachel," she said.

He let her name roll off his tongue. "Rachel. Quite lovely. Thank you for sharing something so personal. You have beautiful eyes."

"Flirting will not endear me. If anything, it might push me away."

"Forgive my forward behavior. This location inspires me."

Rachel gave in quickly. "It does seem to be heavily invested with a romantic aura."

"You are sensitive to it?"

"It's not that hard. Probably thousands of proposals have been made right on this spot."

"Yes," he agreed, his voice going even softer. "I have another."

"Whoa!" Rachel put up her hands and stepped quickly back. Her eyes firmly found the surface of the water again and she vowed to keep them locked there, or glued to the cast iron frame of the Bow Bridge. She had been careless to look a strange vampire in the eyes.

"Not of that nature," he hastened to assure her. "I only wish to continue our discourse. I have not enjoyed anything so much in decades." He cast a judgmental eye to the horizon. "Dawn comes soon. I reside close by. Come home with me."

"Said the spider to the fly."

"I can well understand your reticence, Rachel, but truly I mean you no harm. I only wish to converse. It's been a long time since I could just simply talk to someone."

"You're laying it on pretty thick. That works as well as flirting."

Richard sighed and it came from that same sad place. "I'm sure you believe I will lead you somewhere deserted and -- what is the term -- do away with you, but I do only mean to walk to my home on 77th Street, only four blocks west of here. I have a back patio, accessible from the street. You can sit in the sunlight."

"How old are you?"

"Now who's being rude?" His tone of voice made it clear he wasn't offended, that he was enjoying these little challenges, the parry and riposte.

"I have my reasons for asking."

"These are educated questions, Rachel. More than a simple city dweller would think to ask."

"Still," Rachel prompted.

"Over the five century mark."

"Over the ten century mark?"

He pursed his lips. "No, but closer to the millennium than the half century."

Rachel gestured to the horizon. The sun had crested and yet Richard kept his place on the bridge.

"Yes, I do have some small sun tolerance. This wan light very close to dawn, and at sunset, will not harm me but I have only minutes now, Rachel, just long enough to find my sanctuary. Please come." He gave her the street address before ghosting away on a burst of speed.

Rachel didn't know what to do. She stood there beneath the sobering light of sunrise and thought about a thorny problem that should have had an automatic solution. Her brain insisted on No but there was another place inside, the not very logical piece of her, the highly curious piece of real estate, that insisted on Yes. Sense overcame that emotional, sentimental side at last and she turned towards home, in the opposite direction from where an intriguing vampire lived. A vampire who had given her his address without a guarantee of safety.

"Shaking my damn head," she mumbled, a phrase her students loved and overused in all their social media posts. It did have an apropos ring to it for the situation, she had to admit. Another thing she had to admit, in the privacy of her mind, was the fact that she found Richard intriguing, refreshingly honest, and very handsome. She replayed the chance encounter over in her mind on the subway ride home.

She climbed the stairs to her apartment, suddenly weary, and put her key in the lock. She dropped her keys in the IKEA bowl in the center of her coffee table and fell onto her small couch. Her feet joined her keys on the low table. Thinking again about his rather formal request for "discourse" made her snort. She leaned her head back, only meaning to stay there are few minutes, and promptly slipped into a deep sleep.

A jumble of visions and short dreams kept the sleep restless. She saw Lif and Kevin with stern expressions, her father with a deep frown, and worry lines on her mother's face, but laid over all of that were Richard's haunted eyes, the timeless layers of sadness shading everything.

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