Why had I let Emily drag me to a wine tasting party in Eastern Cemetery in the middle of the night?
She moved easily among the gravestones as if blessed with cat eyes. Even her Goth apparel, a long pleather skirt topped with a ruffled white blouse, burgundy frock coat, and black platform boots, failed to deter her.
I, on the other hand, struggled to keep my long velveteen dark purple skirt from dragging along the ground or getting caught on the edge of a jagged tombstone. All this walking – in Doc Martens, no less – had me struggling for breath in a too-tight corset Emily had insisted I wear.
Emily claimed Goth citizenship. I carried a green card.
“Hurry up, Anna!” Emily called over her shoulder.
I glared at her.
“We’re almost there!” Emily pointed toward a small bend in the road. Ahead of us loomed a statue of a headless woman, the white marble shadowed gray in the moonlight.
Personally, I saw no appeal in holding a wine tasting party in a graveyard with a tragic past. Nor was I eager about the possibility of getting arrested. But Emily had insisted I join her, assuring me no problems were anticipated and I could leave if I became too uncomfortable.
Our destination was the chapel at the far end of Eastern. Except for the sound of our shoes on the pavement, all was quiet.
The silence was disconcerting.
Surely we couldn’t be the only ones attending. I glanced at my watch. Fifteen minutes before midnight. Had everyone already arrived? I looked out over the expanse of tombstones but they stood silent and unyielding. Whatever secrets the dead had taken with them stayed buried.
The stone chapel loomed ahead, austere, silent and dark. No cars lined the oval drive.
We drew closer to our destination. An iron gate barred the front entrance, secured by a chain and padlock. Two panels of the nine-panel stain glass window above the doorway were broken out. I’d read about the vandalism which necessitated the security measures.
The side entrance was also closed off but Emily squeezed through the gap between the gate and doorway. I followed, silently grumbling at how the corset constricted my rib cage. Why had I let Emily talk me into wearing it?
We entered the dark interior. Emily’s fingers gripped my arm, her touch cool.
“Where is everyone?” I whispered. Part of me wondered if Emily were playing a practical joke or if she had more sinister motives.
To be honest, I didn’t know Emily very well. She wasn’t a friend, more of an acquaintance. We’d met in a life drawing class at college. One evening, while glancing through a yearbook dating back to the 1930s, I came across a photograph of a young woman who looked as if she could be Emily’s twin. The resemblance was uncanny.
We stepped into what I assumed to be an antechamber converted into an office. Torn cemetery records littered the floor. The air smelled dank and damp.
A chill gripped me as I looked around the room. Filled with a sense of foreboding, I shivered, cold despite the short black jacket I’d insisted on wearing.
A doorway led to a large circular chamber where the funeral services must have been held. The walls were strewn with graffiti, messages warning us to stay away. Closed doors led to unknown rooms, perhaps chambers where the living could grieve in private.
The sound of clinking glasses seemed to echo in the chamber. I looked around, again wondering if this was a good idea. We were trespassing. As long as we didn't make too much noise, no one might notice. Part of me thrilled at the notion of doing something against the law while my more pragmatic side insisted the sooner I left, the better.
Emily said something behind me.
I turned to ask her to repeat herself. The words fell off my tongue to join my jaw already on the floor.
She had vanished.
The logical part of my brain insisted she couldn’t have disappeared. Nor had she time to return the way we’d come in. People didn’t vanish into proverbial thin air, no matter how convincing illusionists made it seem.
Shaken, I started toward the exit.
A hand clamped down on my shoulder.
I yelped, jumping about a foot in the air. Whirling, I glared at my assailant, fists clenched and ready.
Again, I was struck speechless.
I couldn’t say he was handsome. Intense, yes. His brows were drawn together and he frowned as he studied me with dark, almost black eyes. By contrast, his hair was white, falling to his shoulders. Unlike Emily and me, he didn’t dress Goth but wore a black tuxedo. One hand held a crystal glass of dark red wine.
The stranger bowed. “Perhaps I should introduce myself. I’m Nathaniel.” He lifted the back of my hand to his lips. Like Emily, his touch was cool. “You must be Anna.”
“Emily brought me here for a wine tasting.” I gestured about the empty room. “But it seems she ditched me. If you don’t mind, I’ll see myself out.”
Nathaniel shook his head. “I would hate for you to come here and not partake of one glass.”
I shrugged. While I didn’t appreciate Emily leaving me, I couldn’t trust Nathaniel either. What if he’d doped the wine?
“I’d rather pour my own glass, thank you.”
The corners of Nathaniel’s mouth turned up in a smile. “Of course. I understand you don’t trust me. Would it help if I said Emily recommended you?” He extended the glass. “I can assure you the wine is free of any tampering.”
I wasn’t naive. Nor did my intuition dance around waving red flags. Granted, this wine tasting was unorthodox but I didn’t have to drink the alcohol. A sip first. Any unusual taste and I’d stop right there.
My fingers curled around the delicate stem. Lifting the glass, I took a small sip. A sweet if slightly bitter taste with a hint of cloves lingered on my tongue.
Nothing seemed unusual. Nathaniel watched as I tilted the glass and swallowed a mouthful.
Ever eaten one of those candies that starts out sweet then turns sour? The wine changed, became more coppery. Even stranger, images of young men and women played across my mind like a silent slide show.
The flavor was familiar yet strange. Why couldn’t I place it?
Suddenly alarms and whistles clamored inside my head and I hurled the glass to the cement floor. The crystal shattered, spraying shards.
Blood. I’d drunk blood.
Repulsed, my hands flew to my mouth as I tried to wipe away traces of another’s life essence. Eyes wide, I could only shake my head and back away from Nathaniel to press against an unyielding wall. Despite the expanse of the room, the air seemed stifling, rank with decay.
Nathaniel shook his head as he glanced at the broken glass. “What a waste. Good blood is hard to obtain.”
“How many of those people did you kill?” I glared at Nathaniel, daring him to challenge my assumption. I’d never had any desire to drink blood or even engage in a vampire role playing game. The only vampire-related book I’d read was Dracula, the only movie I saw was the one with Gary Oldman. Other than that, the world of bloodsuckers meant little to me.
I bit my lower lip. Emily had known. She’d dragged me here under false pretenses. My fists clenched again. Damn it. When I saw her...
Nathaniel shook his head. “You mustn’t blame Emily. She only did as ordered.”
“As ordered?” Did he mean to excuse her betrayal?
Nathaniel looked past me for several moments, his expression pensive. “There are humans who are vampires but their true natures are hidden so deeply they never realize who they are. Emily is sensitive. She’s able to find these people and bring them to us. If they can survive the wine tasting, they become initiated into our world.”
“And the ones who don’t survive?” I glanced at the droplets of blood glistening on the floor.
Nathaniel gave me a direct look. “They die and their blood is used in the next ritual.” He paused, as if choosing his next words. “Sadly, not everyone can survive the physical and psychological changes. That you have is a miracle. I’d almost given up on finding another.”
My knees nearly gave way and I had to grip the wall to keep from collapsing. Emily had only been friends with me because she thought I was a vampire?
“How long has she been doing this?” My voice cracked.
“A while. To be honest, an initiate is found only every few decades or so.”
I closed my eyes, bringing that yearbook photo to the forefront of my mind. The person in that picture was the same Emily who’d accompanied me to the graveyard chapel.
“Is she a vampire?”
Nathaniel shook his head. “Merely a scout, for lack of a better term.” He strode toward me. I pushed my back tighter against the wall. “You shouldn’t be afraid,” he chided.
I looked away, biting my lower lip. The corset strained against my ribs as I struggled to take a deep breath. I needed air. My chest ached and thin beads of sweat dotted my hairline.
His fingers undid the black silk cords and the corset fell open, revealing a simple white blouse underneath.
Freed from the constraints, I gulped oxygen into my lungs.
“You realize you will never age, never die?” Nathaniel stepped back. His eyes locked with mine and I couldn’t look away. It was as if he’d lifted the sash to the window of my soul to peer inside.
I needed a distraction. “Where’s Emily?”
“She’s asleep until we need her again.”
That familiar chill traced icy fingers down my spine. “Where?”
Nathaniel shrugged. “In a sepulcher.”
“She’s dead?” My stomach roiled and I pressed a hand against my mouth to stave off dry heaves.
“She died, yes. But not before I tried to save her life by making her a vampire.” A flicker of pain and concern crossed Nathaniel’s face. “She was my only daughter and I’d already lost my wife to the typhoid epidemic.” He gave me a rueful smile. “As you can see, my plan didn’t work as I’d hoped.”
“Why do this?” My fingers clutched at my skirt. “Why not leave us alone?” How dare he have the audacity to assume I wanted to be a vampire.
“If you deny your true nature, you’ll only torment yourself to the point you’ll need to find a way to exorcise your personal demons.” Nathaniel laid a hand on my arm, his touch tentative but also strangely reassuring. “Trust me, this way is much easier.”
I stared at him. Had he sensed the bouts of almost indescribable depression that haunted me? Had he tapped into my memories and seen me standing in the bathroom, wrist held under running water, razor blade at the ready?
The possibility of trading my old existence for a new one sounded enticing. Here was a chance to forgo the pain.
“Will it hurt?”
Nathaniel shook his head. “No, but it won’t be easy at first. We’ll help initiate you into your new life.” His voice softened. “You must understand the decision is already made. Fight it and I guarantee you will only be miserable.”
I closed my eyes. Never again to feel the warmth of the sun or to look up into a cerulean sky. If I said yes my existence would be relegated to the shadows and the night.
“We do venture outside on overcast days. But we don’t sleep in coffins or turn into bats.” He wrinkled his nose.”Can’t believe people think that.” A pause. “Nor do we talk like Bela Lugosi.”
“Who’s that?” I asked innocently.
Nathaniel cocked his head and gave me a bemused smile. “Never mind.” He started toward the entrance, stopped, and turned. He crooked his index finger, beckoning me. “Come.”
Perhaps I would regret it later but this life remained meaningless. Even Emily had a purpose. My other choice was a mundane existence where the only reward was death. Option two wasn’t perfect but if Nathaniel were right, I might regret saying no.
Taking a deep breath, I squared my shoulders and went to join him.