nton's revelation didn't surprise her. The pieces of the puzzle had already fallen into place somewhere in the back of her mind. What struck her was the irony of his situation. Throughout centuries he had fed on human life, but a mere painting had caused him to reevaluate his existance and find it lacking.
"A mere painting," he murmured. "I'm sorry, Christina. I've tried to shield your thoughts, but some of them are so strong they break through."
"I'm no connoisseur of art. To me, they're merely paint on canvas," Chris confessed apologetically. "Their only worth is in their antiquity. At age two, my daughters could produce better drawings with crayons than Picasso."
He laughed. "Oh, I agree. I never bothered with Picasso." Then he sobered and swept his arms wide, encompassing all of the paintings. "I used the paintings as a substitute for everything I'd lost of my former life. They had become my companions and my children. Although they never wavered and never censured and were more loyal and constant than real friends or family could ever be, it wasn't enough."
Chris understood completely. There had been a time when she let the collection of "things" fill the void in her life. All the empty, aching hours left by her daughters when they reached an age had lives of their own. She should have been able to turn to her husband, but he was already beyond her reach. After the divorce, she had rid herself of all her collections except the Lalique crystal.
Anton smiled, as if he heard her thoughts but politely didn't remark upon them.
"As soon as I fully realized the futility of my existance, even with my treasures, I saw no reason to go on. Just before dawn, I took the da Vinci to the roof. I wanted her to be the last thing I saw before I died for the final time."
He moved closer to the painting and ran his fingers along the curve of her cheek. Unreasonably, Chris felt a stab of jealousy, remembering how he'd done the same to her in front of the coffeehouse. At the time, fear had prevented her from enjoying the sensation of his touch. She wasn't afraid now.
He glanced at her knowingly and Chris blushed, embarrassed that he'd read these thoughts in particular.
"The sun rose as it invariably does and I felt the first rays of its burning light. My flesh began to smoke and the pain became excruciating. I wondered how the end would come--would I suddenly cease to exist? or face the white light of judgement? or go straight to hell because of the abomination I had become?"
"If you are an abomination, isn't it of your own making?"
"I didn't ask to be what I am!" he snapped. "She stole my life."
"But you've chosen the path you take," Chris observed quietly. "Isn't the decision of how you live your life, whatever you may be, yours?"
"You know nothing of the paths I've walked," he defended himself fiercely, "or the decisions I've been forced to make."
"I know what you did to John."
Anton strode toward her, his eyes as hard as chips of ice.
"It will be dawn soon. I'll take you back now." He held out a hand to remove the cape, but Chris swept out of his reach.
"You haven't finished--"
"Of course." He drew in a deep breath and when he continued his voice was more serene. "I'm afraid the denoument may be somewhat anti-climactic. It wasn't a perfect moment when the path to redemption became crystal clear. It was simply...the painting. It suddenly occurred to me that if I died and turned to dust to be borne away on the wind, she would be left to the elements. There would be no one to carry her inside or take her away to a museum for all to enjoy her beauty. The weather would eventually reduce her to dust, also. With the last of my strength, I dragged us both inside and shut the door. I was so weak and in pure agony, I fell down the steps and didn't move for days."
Chris took his hand in hers and squeezed. "You didn't really want to die."
"No, I didn't. In the end, I was too afraid of what awaits on the other side."
"The painting, she reminds you of the woman who made you into what you are."
"Yes, she does, but that's another story for another time." He lifted her hand and pressed her palm against his lips. "It's been nearly five years and I haven't completely healed from the damage of the sun. I'm not sure if I ever will. Yes, I look older now than when I first met John. Come, Christina. It's time to take you home."
everal nights later, Chris felt him coming for her. She felt his presence in her soul grow stronger and nearer. She dressed more sensibly in a windsuit, thick socks, and jogging shoes. She braided her shoulder-length hair to keep the wind from tangling it. She waited on the terrace.
She never saw his arrival. Suddenly, he stood behind her, securely enfolding her in his arms. He bent and kissed her cheek then fingered the nylon material of her suit.
"The practical Rawlins?" he questioned with amusement. Then his voice grew huskier, "I liked the nightgown much better."
Words a lover would say, she thought, and didn't care if he heard it or not. She reveled in his attention, his touch, his scent. There were other questions to be answered, more stories to be told, but for the moment she allowed herself to enjoy the feel of his arms around her. She lay her hands over his and leaned back against him.
"Don't enthrall John again. He had a terrible headache the next day. I don't want him to suffer anymore."
"What if he awakens and finds you gone?"
"I'll think of some excuse."
"As you wish. Are you ready, Christina?"
She turned, wrapping her arms around his neck, and closed her eyes. "Yes, Anton," she whispered, "I'm ready."
Again, she couldn't bring herself to watch as they flew over the city and beyond to his secluded lair. Inside, he bypassed the gallery and took her to the lower level.
"A kitchen?" Chris asked incredulously as she surveyed the room stocked with every modern appliance imaginable--brightly new and unused.
"The contractors would have been suspicious if I'd specified no kitchen or dining area." He led her into the living room filled tastefully with antique Victorian furniture and lighted with dozens of white pillar candles. "They thought it strange enough when I insisted on no windows and only met with them at night."
"Where do you sleep?"
Anton looked at her sharply and perhaps scanned her mind. Chris met his eyes. She had no ulterior motive and nothing to hide. She asked out of curiosity.
He visibly relaxed. "There's a bedroom upstairs and it would suffice, but I had a basement built. I seem to rest better enclosed in the earth."
"Do you sleep in a coffin?"
"Yes." He smiled. "They're really quite comfortable."
Chris should have found the comment appalling. Instead, their conversation seemed remarkably normal.
"Please, sit. I'll be back in a moment."
He disappeared toward the kitchen and Chris sat on the sofa. When he returned he carried a bottle of wine and one glass. He poured some of the blood red liquid into the glass and handed it to her.
"I have a fully stocked wine cellar, too. When I bought this place, I had thoughts of entering society again and entertaining." He set the bottle on one of the doily covered tables. "But I've changed my mind about that."
Chris sipped the wine, then cleared her throat. "Can you tell me about Leslie now?"
He had removed the cape earlier. He was dressed in white shirt, black trousers, and vest. He tugged on the vest self-consciously and sat in a wing-backed chair close to her.
"Leslie," he said thoughtfully. "When I confronted you at the coffeehouse, I only meant to let you know I existed, just as John claimed I did. I misled you about Leslie. At the time, I only wanted to ease John's mind concerning his wife. But I can only give you the truth now. I never enthralled Leslie. She came to me--"
"--freely and of her own will," Chris finished for him. "Poor John."
"I admit I went to Leslie that night to enthrall her, to drain her, to make her vampire. I wanted John to feel the vengeance of my betrayal, as I had felt his. I didn't have to. She wanted it, Christina. At the last moment, she knew what I was and she begged for eternal life and youth and beauty. Leslie was a very beautiful woman, and she was very afraid of growing old."
Chris set the glass aside before she dropped it. Her hands shook and tears mercilessly stung her eyes. It could easily be a tale he spun, to entrap her further, but she felt the vibrations of truth from him. At that moment, she knew he couldn't lie to her for if he did she would know it. Their connection grew stronger by the hour.
"I feel it, too," he said softly. "I don't understand it. I have never felt a bond with anyone such as we share."
"Of course, John believes I forced Leslie against her will. If he had any idea of what Leslie truly felt, he has pushed it back into the darkest recesses of his mind. It would be the only way he could live with himself and his memories of her."
Chris nodded and wiped at her eyes. "I can't tell him."
"No, he's not strong enough. Leave him with the memories he does have of her. Let him blame me and hate me. It's the only way he can survive."
She nodded again. "There is one more thing, the private detective, Armis."
He laughed. "You want me to explain away every death I've ever caused. That would take days."
"No, only the ones I know about."
"Armis was a liar and a cheat. He beat his wife on a regular basis. Years before he retired from the police force, he murdered a fellow officer and made it look like a suicide." Anton moved from the chair to sit beside her. "When I drain them, I relive every moment of their lives. Sometimes, I can hardly bear it."
Chris felt that truth in him, too, and felt his pain. So much pain to bear after centuries of draining victims and living their entire sordid lives in mere minutes. Willingly, she went into his arms, freely and of her own will. The words spun in her mind and her heart. He claimed her with a kiss and when his mouth marked a trail to her throat, her pulse throbbing against his lips, she tossed back her head.
He kept her close, caressing her with his lips, and whispered, "Remember, Christina, I can read your thoughts and your heart. You don't crave to be what I am. You only want to experience wonder and adventure again. I can offer you a more mundane pleasure this night, but I won't make you vampire."
Chris nodded and blissfully accepted what he offered.
hris slid the terrace doors together and rested her forehead against the cool glass. Anton knew what was in her heart just as she knew his. She had no desire to live forever, to possess the powers he demonstrated. All she wanted was what she had tonight, to share a few hours of pleasure with a handsome, exciting, exhilarating man. Although she had tasted no more of the wine, Chris' mind reeled in a giddy, drunken splendor. She felt wild and warm, womanly and wonderful. She knew, as a woman of the nineties, she shouldn't let a mere man dictate her feeling of worth. Then she almost laughed out loud. Anton was no mere man. She locked the doors.
"Where have you been, Chrissy?"
Startled by John's quiet question, Chris' heart pounded in her chest. She drew a deep breath before turning to face him. John stood in the doorway to the hall, a book in his hand. Heidenreich, she guessed. He'd read the passage concerning "The Golden Vampire" until he had it memorized. Still, he read it again and again, hoping to find some hidden meaning he might have missed all these years. Yes, John was a man obsessed, as Anton had pointed out.
"Outside, looking at the stars." She spoke the truth, but not the whole truth. She had gazed at the stars earlier but from the rooftop of Anton's lair.
John stepped from the shadows into the edge of the pool of dim light coming through the terrace doors.
"No, Chrissy, you weren't there. I've been awake for hours. I searched the apartment, including the terrace. You weren't there." He walked around the sofa, until he stood completely bathed in the light. His eyes were huge and luminous and haunted with sorrow. "You weren't on the terrace, yet you came in through the terrace doors."
"It's not what you think!" she blurted out, but of course it was exactly what he thought. How could she have been so stupid as not to foresee this? She should have had Anton leave her downstairs so she could come in the front door. Then she could have made some plausible excuse about taking a walk.
"What do I think, Chrissy?" He didn't wait for a reply. "Do I think you can scale the side of a building or...fly?
He laughed, a strange half-mad sound, and Chris wished with all her heart it hadn't come to this, in this way.
"No, of course not." Her mind scrambled for an acceptable excuse, but John didn't give her time.
"Or do I think Voytek has gotten to you?" he ground out with such ferocity that spittle flew from his lips.
"I've looked into his eyes, Chrissy. I've seen the depths of hell. I know what he is capable of."
"He's explained everything, John--"
"Did he explain about Leslie?" He shouted and crossed the room to her in hard, angry steps. He gripped her shoulders and shook her, the book he held between thumb and forefinger pressed against her collar bone. "Did he tell you how he conned his way into our home on a pretext of friendship, then savaged her?"
Tears flooded her eyes as she let him release his anger. When he had gotten over the worst of his anger and calmed down, then she would tell him everything that Anton had told her. Everything, including Leslie. It would either strengthen him or destroy him. Either way, he had to know.
"I wanted to tell you in my own way, after I learned everything I could from Anton."
"You believe what that piece of filth would tell you?"
"John, please." Chris cradled his face in her hands "There is some kind of bond between us. I can't explain it."
"He has you under his spell."
"He put Leslie under a spell, as well as Nicole and Andrea. He would have had me, too, if Harry hadn't saved me."
"No, John, listen. It isn't like that."
"He is that powerful, isn't he? First my wife, now my sister. He has ripped away everyone that had any meaning to me." John's hands loosened and fell from her. He held the book in one hand and ran the other over the leather cover. Chris saw it wasn't Heidenreich at all; it was a Bible. He opened it and turned a few pages. "I won't let him have you, too."
"He doesn't have me. Not like that." She drew him closer and kissed him. "He won't do to me what he did to Leslie. I promise you."
John smiled a little and patted her cheek. "I know you think so, but you don't have control over your thoughts. Voytek does."
"That's not true. Please listen to me--"
"I can't. That way lies madness." He turned a few more pages of the Bible. "I love you, Chrissy."
"I love you too, John." She put her arms around him and hugged him. "I do love you. I'll tell you everything Anton has told me. You'll understand it, too."
"Will I?" He held her tightly and lay her head on his shoulder. Chris' heart lightened a little. Perhaps he was willing to listen, after all.
"Yes, you will," she assured him and pulled away. She started to walk past him, but he caught hold of her arm and swung her around again. "What, John?"
Tears filled his eyes and trailed down his cheeks. He dropped the Bible and his left arm wrapped around her, holding her in a vise-like grip against him. She hugged him again, then tried to back away. "What is it, John?"
He tightened his hold on her and rested his head against hers.
"I knew. The night we went to the cemetary and you went for a drive. When you returned, I knew you had been with him. I could smell him on you," he said in disgust. "The smell of damnation and...desire. The same pungent, profane odor that surrounded my Leslie as she lay in that coffin. I can't destroy Voytek. I'm too old and tired. I couldn't save Leslie, but I can save you. Oh dear God in heaven, help me!"
Chris caught sight of the Bible lying open on the floor. The inside pages had been hollowed out, as if to hide something. "No, John!" she cried out as his right arm slid between them.
"I love you, Chrissy. Forgive me."
She struggled to get free and a shot rang out. She stiffened as a terrible pain ripped through her abdomen. Unable to speak or move, she slipped from her brother's arms to the floor. Another shot sounded as darkness clouded her vision, threatening to overwhelm her senses, but she fought to stay conscious a few moments more.
Come to me, Anton...
The shattering of glass was the answer to her invitation, and the darkness consumed and claimed her as she lay dying.
[Intro]   [Index]   [Notes]