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The mist swirled in the headlights, surrounding and gripping the darkness like massive gray hands. Braking further, Kelly's speed dropped to fifteen miles per hour. The glare reflected a ghostly radiance. Each time she glanced in the rear-view mirror -- half expecting some idiot to be barreling up her ass -- she caught sight of herself and startled at the strange visage staring back.
She blamed the jumpy nervousness on the string of double shifts that had claimed her energies for the past week. Tomorrow, she vowed, she'd sleep until the sun woke her, or until Rico demanded his breakfast. Damn cat, she thought with a smile. Kelly could picture the yellow-eyed imp sitting on her bedside, patting her cheek with his velvet paw until her eyes opened, hoarsely whispering, "Moo-row"
The man fell out of the mist, directly into her path. Jamming the brakes -- hoping they held one more time -- and veering to the right, she avoided hitting him by inches. A quick look in the mirror frightened her further. The vivid glow of the brake lights bathed the still form in an
eerie ruby-colored haze. The tendrils of the fog seemed to lap at the body like a hungry entity, intent on sucking away the remaining life.
Kelly flicked on the flashers -- they worked, at least -- and set the parking brake. Her car door opened with its usual protest, the grating noise amplified in the confines of the mist.
"Hey? You okay?" she called, chiding herself for such a stupid question. Who in their right mind would lie in the middle of the highway at 2 AM? She remained close to the open door of the car, ready to bolt if she felt threatened.
The dome light dispelled some of the red tones and the other worldliness withdrew. Kelly stepped a little closer. The figure curled in a fetal position, still motionless, but she could hear a low rasp and see the rise and fall of the chest as he breathed.
Longish hair fell across the pale face. Kelly knelt, and felt for a pulse at the carotid, just under the jaw. The pulse was weak but regular.
"Hey," she said again. "Are you okay?"
The young man coughed, and rolled to his back. "Hell, no. The bastard shot me."
Kelly tried to jump away as his hand extended toward her. Her crepe-soled shoe caught in a crack in the concrete pavement, and she fell, crab-walking out of his reach.
Now, she could see the dark stain on his white shirt. The blot spread while she watched.
"You gonna let me bleed to death, or did ya stop to help?" His
voice drew her eyes from the blood soaked patch back to his face.
"I..." she said.
"Never mind. Hop in your car, drive down the road and call an ambulance." He labored to his knees. Half crawling, half walking he reached the shoulder of the road. Leaning against the guardrail, he pressed his hand to the upper part of the stain. "Shit, I should have known about the gun."
"What?" Kelly asked.
He shook his head, causing the hair to fall forward again.
"This'll work out better if you hurry, angel."
"What about you?" Kelly scrambled to her feet, brushing the road dirt from her hands and backside.
He laughed then winced. "Oh, I think I'll wait here."
Kelly climbed into her car, intending to find the next call box and notify the police. She watched the arrow indicator settle into D. With a small angry hiss, she slammed the car into reverse. She backed as close as she dared -- God, she didn't want to run over him after all this -then dropped it into P. She jumped out, and raced around to open the passenger door, calling herself names for being a stupid Samaritan.
The interior light finally gave her a good look at his face, and the smile he bestowed as she helped him into the seat. Her ears popped with the heights to which his approval sent her. Something irrevocable had occurred.
"You a nurse?" he mumbled as she closed her
door. He'd spotted the white uniform pants and duty shoes.
"I'm a laboratory technologist."
Kelly swung the car through the next crossover, ignoring the emergency vehicles only sign posted at the entrance.
"I work in the lab. Test body fluids. Draw blood from patients. You know -- a vampire." Everyone called laboratorians vampires -- old joke. She'd always reply that they were only mosquitoes -annoying but never dangerous.
The man laughed. "What a coincidence." A pothole jarred the car and he yelped.
"Sorry. Our tax dollars at work."
Kelly glanced over, and then looked harder. To hell with the fog, she thought, flipping the flashers back on, and flooring the gas pedal. No way this guy was going to die in her car.
The ER staff was surprised at her hasty entrance. Usually, when her car did mean tricks, Kelly just tapped at the pedestrian's door and security let her back in to call a tow truck. This time the blue bomb squealed to a halt in the ambulance bay. The orderly jumped off the dock, tossing aside his cigarette and ran to see what she was trying to pull from the passenger side. Halfway, he saw the problem and detoured for a gurney. Others caught sight of the drama and rushed to help.
Although the staff was frequently accused of callousness due to the dark-sided jokes and gags that circulated in their department, Kelly had never
seen anyone act heartless toward a patient.
"What's the story, Kel?" the night doc asked. "Hang a unit O-neg. And some 5% dex."
She shrugged. "I found him on the road..."
"And he just followed you home?" a passing nurse interjected. "My kids tried that story with a puppy." She deftly started an IV and hung a pair of bags from the metal tree at the head of the gurney, the one of blood from the mini-refrigerator and another containing sugar water from a drawer in the IV cart.
"How much does he weigh?" the recording nurse called above the little side conversations.
"Best guess?" the attending asked.
"One-ninety or two," Dale, the orderly, answered. "How'd you ever get him in?" He then shouted out a pair of numbers -- blood pressure.
"He was alert and oriented then."
"Who is he?
"Start chart, John Doe 3. White male..."
"Nah, Hispanic. Just a light one. Hair, eyes?"
A side argument ensued but the doctor's description
was duly noted.
"Brown and green" he continued as if the other discussions hadn't occurred.
"Oooo, nice combo. You do find such cute puppies to drag home, lab-girl." The nurse grinned over the clipboard. The doctor called out his requirements, which were met though the banter flowed unabated. The bullet hit the metal basin with a ringing clang.
"Well nourished, healthy appearing, no scars or blemishes..." the doctor said, and then looked up grinning. "Except for this new big 'un in his lower right thoracic quadrant."
Earlier the patient's clothing had been cut from his body and was now handed to another orderly who searched the pockets.
"Money clip, five-hundred and seventy-three dollars."
"He should have taken a cab."
"Keys, looks like to a car. Beemer."
"Or maybe a limo."
"A puppy with a pedigree."
"One baggie containing unidentified green stuff and small pipe."
As one the staff glanced at Kelly, and then back to the patient.
"A bad puppy."
Kelly heard the clerk pick up a phone. Calling the cops. Gunshot wound, a lot of cash, and pot. Damn. She'd saved the life of the enemy. She felt a lump start in her throat. She wondered why she was so disappointed. It wasn't like she knew him.
The attending physician continued his suturing in a now silent room. The orderlies attached fetters to the gurney's frame and restrained the man's wrists and ankles. This John Doe would stick around to meet the city's finest.
A tech arrived from the lab. "Hi Kel. Still hanging around?" She assembled the rainbow of evacuated vials required for the trauma profile.
At the prick of the needle, the man thrashed and blew the draw. The tech rolled her eyes and released the tourniquet.
"No. I refuse," he said, weakly.
They hadn't expected him to regain consciousness, yet.
"Sir, we need to know how much blood you've lost," a nurse said, soothingly, in a voice that usually gained compliance.
"Do a spun crit." The patient obviously knew some medical terminology.
"I need a cross-match to give you the right type of blood." The physician pointed to the unit hanging from the crosstree.
"Stop that one. No transfusions. I'm a Jehovah's Witness."
The orderly held up the baggie. "First porch-pounder I ever met with a stash."
"So I also be Rastafarian, mon." He spoke in
a perfect lilting island accent. There were several snickers quickly smothered.
"A funny bad puppy," the nurse whispered to Kelly.
The doctor nodded at the tech. She finger-stuck the man with a lancet and filled a capillary tube with the drop of blood that appeared.
"Pull the IV," the patient demanded.
"As soon as I know the crit," Dr. McFalen said, still concentrating on the wound. "Sue me later -- after I save your worthless pusher life."
"I'm not a dealer."
Though he hadn't directed the comment toward her, Kelly knew the words were meant to refute her misconceptions.
"Fine. Convince the cops." The doctor's hands never faltered.
A nurse held up a slip of paper, positioning it for the doctor to read.
"You'll live. Pull the unit." McFalen stripped off the surgical gloves and tossed them in the red-bagged trashcan. "What's your name? Not because I care, understand. I'm just sick of John Does tonight."
McFalen nodded and strode from the alcove without anything further to say. His attitude said everything. The only life form he considered lower than a user was a pusher.
"Told ya, Hispanic," the recording nurse
said to the room in general. Kelly had backed into a corner, unwilling to either leave or participate. The orderly gathered the trash, and one nurse collected the instruments to be sterilized.
The other nurse applied gauze pads to the neatly patched wounds, and then wound a continuous strip around Jose's chest. He lifted cooperatively and jiggled the fetters.
"These aren't necessary."
"Bad puppies get tied up."
"Sounds kinky, but I'm not really up for it."
She snorted. "Hush."
He lay still while the nurse taped the ends of the bandage. She grabbed the clipboard and headed for the desk to finish writing her notes. Kelly sidled after her, suddenly aware of being alone with him.
"Stay. I'm not the enemy."
Kelly met his eyes for a second. "I gotta go." But her feet stayed planted.
The doctor could be heard talking in official-type tones to the unseen police.
"Ah, the boys in blue have arrived." He glanced at the curtain then at Kelly. "Hey, angel. How about fixing the blanket? I'm feeling a bit vulnerable right now." The white cotton sheet, imprinted with the hospital's initials and logo had slipped during the bandaging process, leaving very little for her imagination to fill in.
Kelly gingerly adjusted the edge of the sheet, and
felt his fingers lightly stroke the back of her hand. She turned her hand so their palms met. The tips of his fingers traced the whorls in hers.
"Oh, angel," he said gently, "For us to meet in such a way."
She liked his touch. Could this happen so quickly?
Jose nodded. "Call my sister." He whispered an easily memorized number. "Tell her what happened. Tell her I'm in trouble."
"You'll be out in a couple of hours," she said. "Don't worry. Possession isn't that big a deal."
"The other guy? He died."
She hadn't considered there were other circumstances. The money and pot had been damning enough. Was he a murderer, too? She pulled her hand away and buried it safely in her pocket.
They both jumped as the police slipped around the curtain. One spoke briskly into the somehow guilty silence. "Mr. Ruiz?"
"And you are?" the other asked Kelly.
"Kelly Stone. I work here. I found him on my way home."
She gave her phone number and address and was permitted to leave. She paused on the other side of the curtain, listening.
"What happened tonight, Mr. Ruiz?"
"Some asshole tried to mug me. I fought back. The
gun went off."
"How many bullets did he fire?"
"Uhm. Two or three. I quit counting after this one."
The questions went on, but Kelly had heard enough. For once the blue bomb started on the first try and got her home without any problems. She dialed the number and gave Jose's message to the lady who answered. And that was that. But she hadn't counted on the dreams.
There had been no one since Robert. Too busy, too worried, too wary, too scared. He'd said she would never really be free of him and, so far, he'd been right. He had whispered the warning as she tried to escape the lawyer's office. It wasn't enough he left her in debt, he had to be sure she knew the game wouldn't be over until he tired of her. Not the other way around. Her fear was required.
"You are mine, remember. I will be watching." He had told her once that he would kill any man who touched her -- expecting her to remember, as she always did, his words.
The threat had been enough. Though asked frequently, Kelly politely refused offers of dinner, movies, dancing, and weekends. The ice of his intimidation had frozen her libido. Until the dreams.
Each had begun the same way.
His kisses. Gentle kisses. Lips smooth and soft, lacking any brutality or sense of invasion. His warm tongue melted the chill in her frigid psyche. Coaxing her lips apart, not forcing them -- enticements not demands. Always retreating before the panic overtook her. Always returning
before the ice spread across her soul again. Kisses.
His hands. Clever hands. Fingers brushed and touched, never pinching or prodding. Gliding through her hair, never pulling or tugging. Strong arms supported her, transported her, catching her as she grew dizzy, never to let her fall. Encircling her, not enclosing her, embracing not enslaving. Allowing space to writhe and freedom to arch, to press against his silky skin and ever warm tongue. Hands.
His erection. Hard inside her. A tool used not as a weapon to intimidate but as a means to please her, engage her. Lifting in her, with her -- instead of crushing her, subjugating her. Brought to the edge, but allowed to flee from the precipice when fear overcame her bliss. Led back to the chasm by another path.
Kisses, hands, arms, cock wanting her -- begging her to soar with him, jump to him. Orgasm. Like falling off a loft into the cushioning hay, like dying a phoenix's death, like burning backwards from an ash to a straw flower.
Like learning to breath again.
His name didn't appear on the inpatient list, or in the newspaper. Kelly couldn't ask what happened to Jose Ruiz. Her increased quietness was attributed to new troubles with her ex. She had never defended herself but the high society drama had been fuel for the gossip columns, and everyone knew the tale.
Homecoming queen, prom princess, beauty pageant finalist marries an older man. Trophy wife turns out to have a brain and wants to use it, but med-school wasn't part of the prospectus in which the politically connected husband thought he had invested. Messy divorce. Only a select few knew the real story.
McFalen was one -- one whom she also considered a friend. He had patched Kelly up once, the final time, and had called a shelter. He had seen the outer bruises and suspected the inner ones. He'd understood her discretion then but this obsession with a druggie he'd never comprehend. So she remained silent.
The hang-ups or, worse, the jeering laugh began again. Kelly changed her phone number. Her third since the divorce.
She looked forward to sleeping. Even without the dreams, she felt more real asleep than when awake. She moved through the day distracted, disoriented, waiting for what was coming. She could smell ozone, a storm brewing. Even metaphysical ones had ways of warning the people who knew where to look, how to see.
Rico hid from her, the rod the lightening followed. He'd follow her, watching her. He'd suddenly dart from her presence as if struck. He'd climb up to sit beside her, crying in his cow-cat voice. Kelly would stroke him a few times, but the trembling would begin and shortly after he'd bat away her hand and leap from her lap in a panic.
"I know how you feel, kitty," she said, wishing there was room under the sofa for her as well.
Kelly forced herself to work, to grocery shop, to attend to the daily business of living. The tasks felt like charades, her face a façade. She'd sit by the window waiting for that which would come.
When it did, she nearly missed it, diverted by a flock of geese flying over, honking in their innocent arrogance. "We are here. We are going. We are gone." Kelly watched the V-form shifting as the leader tired and fell back, encouraging another to take his place. When she again looked out on the street, his back was toward her and he'd begun to walk away.
"Wait," she shouted in a sub-audible whisper, knowing her chance had passed like the geese.
He turned, and waited.
They sat at an outdoor table. She hadn't trusted herself to invite him to her apartment. He bought her a cup of tea, and ordered hot chocolate for himself.
The cocoa came heaped with whipped cream and cinnamon. The pale tea sat limpid, insipid in the gray and blue cup before her.
He smiled and switched the cups, pushing the confection before her without a single sign of regret.
"I knew you really wanted cocoa, angel. It's not just for children," he said.
Robert had said that adults didn't drink hot chocolate, and had insisted on tea or coffee. Coffee tasted nastier, so she drank tea.
The silky sweet whipped cream cooled the searing of her burned tongue. She stirred the heat away, then gulped the richness, swirling it, savoring it. The cup emptied too quickly, and she felt like crying. The waiter brought two more.
"I like chocolate, too."
Kelly thought she could take her time with this cup. The aroma warmed the hairs in her nostrils, and the whipped cream felt like air on her tongue. Each sip filled some wordless yearning.
When the second cup had vanished, so had her longing. She looked up into
the jade-green eyes that had watched her every movement.
"I love you," he said. The bitter laugh died in her throat, his expression never altered.
He reached across the table and stroked her wrist, tracing the tangle of bluish veins beneath her shell-like skin. "We have forever to talk about whys. Let's answer the why nots." He waited, quietly, exploring the tiny lines on her hand.
"Because I'm fucked up. I think I've lost my mind."
"Isn't everyone? I don't require sanity."
"I'm broke. Worse than poor."
"I'm not. I'll share."
Each of his answers came immediately, as if he knew her objections. Each of his replies was followed by a patient pause, as she thought of another barrier.
"I have an ex-husband who thinks he still owns me."
She shook her head, but her hands trembled, exposing her doubt.
"I'll dissuade him."
"He has a powerful family."
"So do I."
"I don't even know your real name."
"Vladimir Alexis Josef Zurin," he said, and then with a hint of a smile, "But you can call me darling."
She fell silent, holding back her answering smile. Thinking of a way to free him of this albatross named Kelly.
"I don't love you," she said, as coldly as she could, pulling her hand away. Willing it to be true, wanting him to withdraw. Hurt maybe, but safe.
"What?" she asked.
"Never mind. We'll come back to that one. Got anymore?"
Kelly shook her head. Another flock of geese trumpeted overhead. They watched until the V was lost the sky. A simultaneous sigh escaped them, and then a shared smile.
"Are you ready for mine?" he asked.
She nodded, wondering if she truly were.
"We don't know each other."
"We have the rest of our lives to become better acquainted," she said, finding this side of the debate far easier than she'd expected.
He slipped his fingers through hers. "No whys, remember?"
She lifted one shoulder. "Bend the rules -- for me."
The cool touch tickled her neck, squirming before settling in. Suddenly, she saw the world through his eyes. Every object acquired a new depth, as if she'd been living in a flat world. She saw not only the exterior of people, but also an aura of the internal substance. Turmoil, fear, desire, greed, and pleasure assailed her senses. Letting the sensation wash over her, she could also feel Val filtering the experience, preventing the worst of it from reaching her.
The woman at the next table had cramps, the waiter's foot was swollen and sore, the cook burned his hand. The litany of pain and woe went on, losing urgency with relative physical distance. Then came the other pain. The bereavement the woman felt in this reminder of her barren state. The waiter wanted desperately to finish the shift for the tips to buy his solace. Watching the dishwasher, a teenage girl in a tight tee shirt, bend and stretch in her work had caused the cook's distraction. His lust was overwhelming, and Kelly caught her breath.
Val pulled his hand from hers and the deluge stopped.
"Medicinal purposes, then," she said, quietly.
"Now you know why I know you love me."
His empathy would have him love no one who didn't love him in return.
Kelly nodded. Denial would be futile.
"I have other lovers."
"Instead of me?"
"No, angel. Never. You would be my wife." The way his lips caressed the words made a poem of the simple statement.
"I'll ignore them, if you let me."
He nodded. She could see the next point forming in his eyes, in the bated rate of his breathing.
"I'm not human."
She examined what she had seen and more importantly what she had felt in his presence. She considered her words carefully.
"I know." Minimalism was at the core of her being. "You're a vampire."
His rapid gasp announced the accuracy of the guess. He averted his face and his fingers twisted around each other. She could see the whitened knuckles.
Kelly reached out and made contact with him. She caressed his shaky hand and whispered her judgment.
"I don't care."
Her apartment, bare of all but the necessities, didn't appear to disappoint him. He scratched Rico's head, and glanced out the window from which she watched the world. Kelly offered lunch, but Val shook his head. It wasn't food that either of them wanted.
In her small bed, he fulfilled her. Shining this light upon them, made her realize how very innocent even the deepest darkest wishes of her injured soul had been. She added his teeth to the list of fine dreams. Ecstasy followed the tiny sliver as surely as her orgasm followed his lovemaking. Richard had drawn her blood, with his selfish fists, to obtain her fear.
Val allayed her terrors in his slick bite, shared back her blood in his tender kisses.
Viraran, not vampire, he informed her. Kelly listened to Val's whys in the sleepless night. He described the caged feeling of being unlike. He called himself a realist, and his sister a dreamer. There was no solution. The trick would be to change habits and behaviors, if altering nature proved impossible. He poured out his bottled ideas into her mind, having held them in so long. As his words trickled off, his lips found other purposes to busy them and again her dreams became real. The line between became ragged and blurred. More than once she awakened, not knowing she'd fallen asleep. Val followed her both places with equal ease and, for the first time in a long time, her awakened moments were as good as her sleeping ones.
He had gone when the sun awoke her to the end of the last night and the beginning of the first day. Even without the note, 'Soon', she knew he'd come back. Maybe he'd bring hot chocolate, or muffins.
The tapping at the door made her jump. Rico hissed from beneath the end table, his tail lashing with agitation.
"Jealous, demon-child?" Kelly laughed as she unlocked the door.
She saw only the razor-edge as the knife sliced her cheek, reversed and slashed the other.
"He said to tell ya that he keeps his promises." The voice came out of a well, dark and malodorous. The slime crept up the edges and coated her body, seeping through the pores of her skin to taint the flesh beneath it. The stain blocked the sunshine and the small flower of contentment, which had begun to bloom, withered, and wilted, and died.
"I'm sorry, angel." She could smell the hot chocolate and the spice of his skin. She felt his soothing kisses on her bloody cheeks.
The light and sound identified the place. McFalen's voice broke as he requested the supplies to clean the gaping wounds. A stranger's hands touched the edges, and Kelly could hear parts of the whispered consult. The cosmetic surgeon promised to do his best to fix this desecration. A concerned motherly voice whispered that she would wake up feeling better. Kelly was glad just to go to sleep.
"Hey, angel." Softly, from the darkness came Val's voice.
She turned away. Closed her mind. Whispered, "No, go away." Robert would never let her be, destroying her happiness as surely as her face.
"I don't care how you look."
When she awoke again, he was gone.
She sat by the window. He stood below looking up. Kelly shook her head, and dropped the curtain. Some things healed with time. Others didn't.
She pushed the dreams away and, in the morning -after the telltale sickness passed -- called the abortion clinic.
"Angel?" Val sat beside her in the Laundromat. She had felt him following and walked past the clinic, hiding her intentions.
She ignored him.
"Talk to me. Please."
Kelly shook her head, slightly.
"Don't you want to be with me?"
She could feel his touch in her mind. 'No', she said silently.
The why not game. Could she play? Why not?
"Because you are still beautiful." He was, she mourned, so achingly fair to her life-weary eyes. Her body longed for his warm arms as her soul yearned for his silken cocoon.
"As are you." A picture formed in her mind of a strange symmetry. In his mind, the scars on her face had balanced the scars of her soul, adding a depth to her that had been lacking.
"Because he'll kill us," Kelly whispered the truest why not.
"I can protect us."
"You didn't." She shook her head and touched her cheeks. "Your turn."
In a voice begging for her approval, his eyes searching hers for some encouragement, he said, "Because I will always grant your wishes."
Val lay the Baltimore Sun in her lap. The story had made the front page. The photo showed Robert smiling into the camera, a
consummate actor and a polished politician. Her stomach heaved with revulsion as the picture eyes seemed to follow her, devour her in their greed, but she read on.
He was dead. His beaten and broken body had been found in the landfill, partially eaten by vermin. The attacker had clearly been insane, or a psychopath, bent on inflicting the maximum amount of torture. The police had no clues and no witnesses to the obscenely brutal murder.
Robert had died -- afraid and in pain.
The darkest wish of all.
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