April 9, 2012
THE DREAM WAS BACK. It didn’t always come, but it was always the same. Days could go by, weeks, months, even. Once, I went nearly an entire year before the dream returned to haunt my sleep. I had started to think I’d seen the last of it, but I should have known better. Because it always comes back. And it’s always the same.
The ship. The darkness. That impossibly starry sky. The mysterious man holding me, keeping me from falling overboard. The emptiness. The silence. The panic.
It was the blood that always woke me up. That stupid bloody scarf clutched in my hands. I didn’t understand much about the dream, but I knew the scarf wasn’t mine, and neither was the blood soaking it. I’m not sure why, but somehow that knowledge made it even more frightening. I would wake up sweating and shaking, often crying, and ask myself what the dream meant, why it kept coming. And why was it always the same?
This time, it had been over a month since the dream’s last visit, and while it always shook me, I found myself strangely glad to see it again, like being visited by an old friend. Having the dream come back was familiar. Scary, but familiar. In my life, I didn’t have a lot of constants, so it was welcome, even if it did leave me feeling sad and disoriented the next morning.
I didn’t have time to ponder the shortcomings of my life right then. I had work to do, so I took a deep breath, shook the cobwebs from my mind, and looked up at the sky. It was a beautiful night. The moon was full, there was a fine mist hovering over the ground and the air was crisp and clean, though a little chilled. Belfast had proven to be more beautiful than I had expected, so much so that I hated to leave. It was my first trip to Northern Ireland and I would have liked to stay a little longer. Unfortunately, I was there on an assignment, and once that was finished, I had to fly home immediately. I hated airplanes, which only made me dread the completion of my job that much more.
I crouched quietly against the base of a tree and waited. He was nearby, though I wasn’t sure exactly where. I had spied him slinking around only a few minutes ago, then lost him in the mist. I could still sense him, however, so he couldn’t have gone far. His presence was so strong it filled the air with a kind of crackling energy. I would wait, and eventually that energy would reveal his location.
If I hadn’t already been watching the small grove of trees to my right, I would never have seen him in time. A lifetime of practice and a special set of genes allowed me to hone in on him and predict his movements, and as he flew towards me, I dodged to the left, swept my foot in front of his and knocked him to the ground. I fell on top of him and straddled his waist, pinning him beneath me. Although I probably weighed half as much as he did, my strength nearly rivaled his, and I used his initial shock to my advantage. He had barely regained his wits enough to struggle when I finally righted my weapon and pulled the trigger.
He lifted his head and blinked down at the wound in his chest, shifted his incredulous gaze to my face, then went limp. I sighed and stood up, giving him one last kick to be sure he was gone before turning and walking away. It was late, and the park was deserted. No one would come across that spot until well into the morning, and by then there would be nothing left of him to find. All that remained for me to do now was go back to my hotel, shower, eat something, then head for a pub to celebrate a job well done. Maybe if I drank enough, I could forget for a while that I had to be on a plane in 18 hours.
I’D CHOSEN TO WALK that night rather than take a cab, determined to see as much of the city as possible before I had to leave. The mild night and beautiful landscape did not disappoint, but now that it was later, the temperature had dropped considerably. I pulled my jacket around me to ward off the cold and quickened my pace down the pitted sidewalk, no longer interested in sightseeing until I was warmer. A few blocks later, I passed by one especially crowded pub and paused in the doorway to peer inside. There was a large banner over the bar announcing the upcoming anniversary celebrations: that week was the 100th anniversary of the maiden (and final) voyage of the Titanic. It was strange to imagine celebrating a shipwreck, but from what I’d heard the Irish never pass up the chance to party. Or more specifically, to drink.
The Titanic had been built in that very city, and despite its tragic fate, the people of Belfast took great pride in their connection to the legend. Everyone knew the story of the “unsinkable” luxury liner and her doomed maiden voyage. Movies were made, books were written, dives were made to the ocean floor to view and salvage the wreckage. People have always been fascinated by death, and the more dramatic, the better. You don’t get much more dramatic than the sinking of the Titanic.
I’ve always been what you might call a Titanic buff. The story of the ship and her passengers captivated me, and as a child I soaked up as many books and television documentaries as I could get my hands on. The movie made by James Cameron in 1997 had immediately become my favorite, and to this day has remained so. In fact, I often wondered if the ship in my dream is the Titanic. As obsessed as I am, I suppose it’s only natural that I would sometimes dream of her. I just wish my dreams had a little more Leonardo DiCaprio, and a lot less blood.
By the looks of the pub’s crowd, they already had a pretty good start on the celebrations, especially for a Monday night. Everyone was drinking and laughing and having a grand time. An old-fashioned jukebox sat on one side of the room, playing an old ragtime tune from the turn of the 20th century. A young couple was attempting to dance in the small space left between two tables, but were having a hard time keeping the rhythm. One glance at the number of empty glasses on the table behind them explained why.
I leaned into the doorway some more to look over the crowded room, smiling at the joyous atmosphere. I tended to be kind of a loner, but the vibe there was so infectious, I was tempted to join the party. But then my eyes landed on a man seated at the end of the bar and my mood quickly soured. As though sensing my attention, he turned and caught my gaze. Despite the distance between us, I knew his eyes were dark blue, similar to the shirt he was wearing, and for a brief moment, I thought I saw sadness in them. As quick as it came, the moment passed, and he winked and raised his glass to me in a silent toast before turning back to the bartender with whom he had previously been chatting.
“Cristof,” I muttered to myself angrily, then backed out of the pub and hurried towards my hotel, no longer in the mood to party.
BY THE TIME I finished my shower and found something to eat, I was feeling better, but I was too tired to go back out. Instead of finding another pub to visit, I helped myself to the mini bar in my room, watched some television, then went to bed. That sort of evening was more my speed, anyway. I wasn’t a pub-crawling kind of girl, but I’d figured when in Ireland, do as the Irish do, right?
Just as I was starting to feel that delicious lightness of sleep pulling at me, the calm of the room was shattered by a loud, harsh knocking. I opened my eyes and scanned the darkness, but saw nothing. As the fog of near-sleep lifted from my mind, I realized the sound I was hearing wasn’t that of someone banging on the heavy oak door, but the sharp rapping of knuckles on glass. There was only one window in the room, obscured by a set of heavy damask curtains to keep out the glow from the street lamps outside.
The knocking came again, more insistent this time, and suddenly nothing on this Earth would get me to leave the safety of the bed and open those drapes. It was 2:00 in the morning, I was on the fifth floor of the hotel, and someone was at my window. No good could possibly come of that.
Ignore it, and maybe they’ll go away, I thought, then laughed softly. Yeah, sure. Anyone knocking that loudly was not going to be deterred so easily. Besides, given my location, there was only one person it could be, and I had never known him to be a quitter.
“Damn it!” I hissed the curse under my breath and threw back the bed covers. This was just the sort of thing that Cristof would do. Our short encounter at the pub wouldn’t have been enough for him; of course he would come looking for me. Still, that didn’t make me want to go to the window any more than I had when I thought some psycho serial killer was out there. In many ways, my first instinct had been right on the money.
As much as I wanted to ignore him, I knew he wasn’t going to just go away. He knew I was in the room; he could probably smell me through the glass. With a heavy sigh, I slid out of the bed and pulled a robe on over what passed as pajamas for me: an old Lincoln Park Zoo t-shirt and a pair of men’s flannel boxer shorts.
I tied the robe closed and stumbled to the window, casting one last longing look at the warm and rumpled bed behind me. After turning on a lamp, I pulled on the cord that parted the drapes and steeled myself for the inevitable battle of wills with my uninvited guest.
“What are you doing here?” I asked through the window, not sure I wanted to open it. Cristof leaned forward to peer in at me, his forehead practically pressed against the glass. I couldn’t see him very well, as it was darker outside than in, but I could make out the general shape of his face and the mischievous sparkle in his eyes. The breeze picked up and blew though his dark hair, making it form an eerie sort of halo around him before it settled down over his shoulders again.
“Aren’t you going to ask me in out of the cold?” He smiled as he asked this, but it wasn’t the kind of smile that would make someone anxious to get closer.
I knelt on the floor and folded my arms casually on the windowsill. I peered up at him through the dirty glass and gave him my sweetest smile. “No.”
That wiped the smirk off his face for a moment. He quickly recovered, then crouched down so that we were eye-to-eye. When he spoke again, his thick Irish brogue flowed through the old window as though there were nothing separating us. “I’m not here to hurt you. I swear it.”
“Always good to know, but I’m not taking any chances. Now what are you doing here, Cristof?”
He shrugged and paused to shift his weight a little, making the fire escape squeal in protest. “I haven’t seen you in a while, Sunshine. Maybe I missed you.”
I really hated his pet name for me. It wasn’t meant as a term of endearment, though sometimes he did seem oddly fond of me . . . in the way a lion would be fond of a gazelle. No, Sunshine was merely a dig at my name. My mother saw Apolline in a book of baby names when she was pregnant with me, and fell in love with it. It means “sunshine,” and she thought it was fitting, in light of our family’s profession. It’s unique, and I’ve come to like it, though if I’d had a normal childhood with other kids to tease me, I might have cursed her for it. Instead, I grew up with my mother as my sole teacher and friend: an often lonely life, but it was all I’d ever known. Now she was gone, and the vampire responsible was perched a few feet away on a rusty fire escape, grinning at me as though we were just two pals having a late night chat.
Thinking of my mother again wasn’t helping ease my annoyance with him. “Sorry, but the only time I want to see you is when I’ve finally been sent out to kill you. And I will be sent after you one of these days.”
“Such threats,” he sighed, finally dropping the smile. “And here I was trying to be friendly.”
“No, you were trying to get me out of this room,” I countered. “You can flirt with me all you like; it’s not going to do any good.”
“I thought you enjoyed our wee game.”
“Admit it, Sunshine, life wouldn’t be nearly as exciting without me.” He was enjoying himself, the sick bastard.
“Exciting isn’t the word I’d use. You following me around isn’t a game, not to me. Your existence does nothing positive for my life, Cristof, and no amount of charm will make me forget what you’ve done.”
He leaned back on his heels, that self-satisfied smirk back on his face. “Such fire you have . . . just like your ma.”
Anger flared inside of me and I started to lunge at him, but stopped before I stupidly flung myself against the glass. In my rage, I’d almost forgotten the window was still closed. That would have just been embarrassing.
“Now you’re upset. Was it something I said?” he asked with mock innocence. He reached out and traced a gloved finger along the glass, leaving a faint trail in the grime as though he were outlining my cheek. “You remind me of her more every time I see you. You have her fighting spirit, too. Just remember, lass, that’s as much a weakness as it is a strength. You wouldn’t be the first Greer I bested, but if you don’t mind yourself, you might be the last.” He swiped his finger across the window in front of my neck, then winked, grabbed the railing behind him and vaulted over it, disappearing into the night before I could manage a response.
I stared at the empty fire escape, unable to move. He always did this; he knew just how to get to me. It was nothing but a game to him, and no matter how hard I tried not to, I played along every damn time. One of these days, I wouldn’t be able to control myself and one of us would end up dead. If I wasn’t more careful, it was likely to be me.
On to Chapter Two