At two-fifteen I was ripped from sleep by a terrible sensation of drowning. Flailing my way out from under the covers, transformed into heavy, wet seaweed by the power of the dream, I moved toward the lighter water above me.
Just when I was making progress, something grabbed me by the ankle and pul ed me down deeper.
As usual with nightmares, I awoke with a start before finding out who had caught me. For several minutes I lay disoriented, my body drenched with sweat and my heart sounding a staccato beat that reverberated through my rib cage. Gingerly, I sat up.
A white face stared at me from the window with dark, hol ow eyes.
Too late I realized that it was just my reflection in the glass. I barely made it to the bathroom before being sick.
Then I spent the next thirty minutes curled into a bal on the cold tile floor, blaming Matthew Clairmont and the other, gathering creatures for my unease. Final y I crawled back into bed and slept for a few hours. At dawn I dragged myself into rowing gear.
When I got to the lodge, the porter gave me an amazed look. "You're not going out at this hour in the fog, Dr.
Bishop? You look like you've been burning the candle at both ends, if you don't mind me saying so. Wouldn't a nice lie-in be a better idea? The river wil stil be there tomorrow."
After considering Fred's advice, I shook my head. "No, I'l feel better for it." He looked doubtful. "And the students are back this weekend."
The pavement was slick with moisture, so I ran more slowly than usual to make al owances for the weather as wel as my fatigue. My familiar route took me past Oriel Col ege and to the tal , black iron gates between Merton and Corpus Christi. They were locked from dusk until dawn to keep people out of the meadows that bordered the river, but the first thing you learned when you rowed at Oxford was how to scale them. I climbed them with ease.
The familiar ritual of putting the boat in the water did its work. By the time it slipped away from the dock and into the fog, I felt almost normal.
When it's foggy, rowing feels even more like flying. The air muffles the normal sounds of birds and automobiles and amplifies the soft thwack of oars in the water and the swoosh of the boat seats. With no shorelines and familiar landmarks to orient you, there's nothing to steer by but your instincts.
I fel into an easy, swinging rhythm in the scul , my ears and eyes tuned to the slightest change in the sound of my oars that would tel me I was getting too close to the banks or a shadow that would indicate the approach of another boat. The fog was so thick that I considered turning back, but the prospect of a long, straight stretch of river was too enticing.
Just shy of the tavern, I careful y turned the boat. Two rowers were downstream, engaged in a heated discussion about competing strategies for winning the idiosyncratic Oxbridge style of racing known as "bumps."
"Do you want to go ahead of me?" I cal ed.
"Sure!" came the quick response. The pair shot past, never breaking their stroke.
The sound of their oars faded. I decided to row back to the boathouse and cal it quits. It was a short workout, but the stiffness from my third consecutive night of little sleep had lessened.
The equipment put away, I locked the boathouse and walked slowly along the path toward town. It was so quiet in the early-morning mist that time and place receded. I closed my eyes, imagining that I was nowhere-not in Oxford, nor anywhere that had a name.
When I opened them, a dark outline had risen up in front of me. I gasped in fear. The shape shot toward me, and my hands instinctively warded off the danger.
"Diana, I'm so sorry. I thought you had seen me." It was Matthew Clairmont, his face creased with concern.
"I was walking with my eyes closed." I grabbed at the neck of my fleece, and he backed away slightly. I propped myself against a tree until my breathing slowed.
"Can you tel me something?" Clairmont asked once my heart stopped pounding.
"Not if you plan to ask why I'm out on the river in the fog when there are vampires and daemons and witches fol owing me." I wasn't up for a lecture-not this morning.
"No"-his voice held a touch of acid-"although that's an excel ent question. I was going to ask why you walk with your eyes closed."
I laughed. "What-you don't?"
Matthew shook his head. "Vampires have only five senses. We find it best to use al of them," he said sardonical y.
"There's nothing magical about it, Matthew. It's a game I've played since I was a child. It made my aunt crazy. I was always coming home with bruised legs and scratches from running into bushes and trees."
The vampire looked thoughtful. He shoved his hands into his slate gray trouser pockets and gazed off into the fog.
Today he was wearing a blue-gray sweater that made his hair appear darker, but no coat. It was a striking omission, given the weather. Suddenly feeling unkempt, I wished my rowing tights didn't have a hole in the back of the left thigh from catching on the boat's rigging.
"How was your row this morning?" Clairmont asked final y, as if he didn't already know. He wasn't out for a morning strol .
"Good," I said shortly.
"There aren't many people here this early."
"No, but I like it when the river isn't crowded."
"Isn't it risky to row in this kind of weather, when so few people are out?" His tone was mild, and had he not been a vampire watching my every move, I might have taken his inquiry for an awkward attempt at conversation.
"If something were to happen, it's possible nobody would see it."
I'd never been afraid before on the river, but he had a point. Nevertheless, I shrugged it off. "The students wil be here on Monday. I'm enjoying the peace while it lasts."
"Does term real y start next week?" Clairmont sounded genuinely surprised.
"You are on the faculty, aren't you?" I laughed.
"Technical y, but I don't real y see students. I'm here in more of a research capacity." His mouth tightened. He didn't like being laughed at.
"Must be nice." I thought of my three-hundred-seat introductory lecture class and al those anxious freshmen.
"It's quiet. My laboratory equipment doesn't ask questions about my long hours. And I have Dr. Shephard and another assistant, Dr. Whitmore, so I'm not entirely alone."
It was damp, and I was cold. Besides, there was something unnatural about exchanging pleasantries with a vampire in the pea-soup gloom. "I real y should go home."
"Would you like a ride?"
Four days ago I wouldn't have accepted a ride home from a vampire, but this morning it seemed like an excel ent idea. Besides, it gave me an opportunity to ask why a biochemist might be interested in a seventeenth-century alchemical manuscript.
"Sure," I said.
Clairmont's shy, pleased look was utterly disarming. "My car's parked nearby," he said, gesturing in the direction of Christ Church Col ege. We walked in silence for a few minutes, wrapped up in the gray fog and the strangeness of being alone, witch and vampire. He deliberately shortened his stride to keep in step with me, and he seemed more relaxed outdoors than he had in the library.
"Is this your col ege?"
"No, I've never been a member here." The way he phrased it made me wonder what col eges he had been a member of. Then I began to consider how long his life had been. Sometimes he seemed as old as Oxford itself.
"Diana?" Clairmont had stopped.
"Hmm?" I'd started to wander off toward the col ege's parking area.
"It's this way," he said, pointing in the opposite direction.
Matthew led me to a tiny wal ed enclave. A low-slung black Jaguar was parked under a bright yel ow sign that proclaimed POSITIVELY NO PARKING HERE. The car had a John Radcliffe Hospital permit hanging from the rearview mirror.
"I see," I said, putting my hands on my hips. "You park pretty much wherever you want."
"Normal y I'm a good citizen when it comes to parking, but this morning's weather suggested that an exception might be made," Matthew said defensively. He reached a long arm around me to unlock the door. The Jaguar was an older model, without the latest technology of keyless entries and navigation systems, but it looked as if it had just rol ed off the show-room floor. He pul ed the door open, and I climbed in, the caramel-colored leather upholstery fitting itself to my body.
I'd never been in a car so luxurious. Sarah's worst suspicions about vampires would be confirmed if she knew they drove Jaguars while she drove a broken-down purple Honda Civic that had oxidized to the brownish lavender of roasted eggplant.
Clairmont rol ed along the drive to the gates of Christ Church, where he waited for an opening in the early- morning traffic dominated by delivery trucks, buses, and bicycles. "Would you like some breakfast before I take you home?" he asked casual y, gripping the polished steering wheel. "You must be hungry after al that exercise."
This was the second meal Clairmont had invited me to (not) share with him. Was this a vampire thing? Did they like to watch other people eat?
The combination of vampires and eating turned my mind to the vampire's dietary habits. Everyone on the planet knew that vampires fed on human blood. But was that al they ate? No longer sure that driving around in a car with a vampire was a good idea, I zipped up the neck of my fleece pul over and moved an inch closer to the door.
"Diana?" he prompted.
"I could eat," I admitted hesitantly, "and I'd kil for some tea."
He nodded, his eyes back on the traffic. "I know just the place."
Clairmont steered up the hil and took a right down the High Street. We passed the statue of George I 's wife standing under the cupola at The Queen's Col ege, then headed toward Oxford's botanical gardens. The hushed confines of the car made Oxford seem even more otherworldly than usual, its spires and towers appearing suddenly out of the quiet and fog.
We didn't talk, and his stil ness made me realize how much I moved, constantly blinking, breathing, and rearranging myself. Not Clairmont. He never blinked and seldom breathed, and his every turn of the steering wheel or push of the pedals was as smal and efficient as possible, as if his long life required him to conserve energy.
I wondered again how old Matthew Clairmont was.
The vampire darted down a side street, pul ing up in front of a tiny cafe that was packed with locals bolting down plates of food. Some were reading the newspaper; others were chatting with their neighbors at adjoining tables. Al of them, I noted with pleasure, were drinking huge mugs of tea.
"I didn't know about this place," I said.
"It's a wel -kept secret," he said mischievously. "They don't want university dons ruining the atmosphere."
I automatical y turned to open my car door, but before I could touch the handle, Clairmont was there, opening it for me.
"How did you get here so fast?" I grumbled.
"Magic," he replied through pursed lips. Apparently Clairmont did not approve of women who opened their own car doors any more than he reportedly approved of women who argued with him.
"I am capable of opening my own door," I said, getting out of the car.
"Why do today's women think it's important to open a door themselves?" he said sharply. "Do you believe it's a testament to your physical power?"
"No, but it is a sign of our independence." I stood with my arms crossed, daring him to contradict me and remembering what Chris had said about Clairmont's behavior toward a woman who'd asked too many questions at a conference.
Wordlessly he closed the car's door behind me and opened the cafe door. I stood resolutely in place, waiting for him to enter. A gust of warm, humid air carried the smel of bacon fat and toasted bread. My mouth started to water.
"You're impossibly old-fashioned," I said with a sigh, deciding not to fight it. He could open doors for me this morning so long as he was prepared to buy me a hot breakfast.
"After you," he murmured.
Once inside, we wended our way through the crowded tables. Clairmont's skin, which had looked almost normal in the fog, was conspicuously pale under the cafe's stark overhead lighting. A couple of humans stared as we passed. The vampire stiffened.
This wasn't a good idea, I thought uneasily as more human eyes studied us.
"Hiya, Matthew," a cheerful female voice cal ed from behind the counter. "Two for breakfast?"
His face lightened. "Two, Mary. How's Dan?"
"Wel enough to complain that he's fed up being in bed.
I'd say he's definitely on the mend."
"That's wonderful news," Clairmont said. "Can you get this lady some tea when you have a chance? She's threatened to kil for it."
"Won't be necessary, dearie," Mary told me with a smile.
"We serve tea without bloodshed." She eased her ample body out from behind the Formica counter and led us to a table tucked into the far corner next to the kitchen door. Two plastic-covered menus hit the table with a slap. "You'l be out of the way here, Matthew. I'l send Steph around with the tea. Stay as long as you like."
Clairmont made a point of settling me with my back to the wal . He sat opposite, between me and the rest of the room, curling the laminated menu into a tube and letting it gently unfurl in his fingers, visibly bristling. In the presence of others, the vampire was restless and prickly, just as he had been in the library. He was much more comfortable when the two of us were alone.
I recognized the significance of this behavior thanks to my new knowledge of the Norwegian wolf. He was protecting me.
"Just who do you think poses a threat, Matthew? I told you I could take care of myself." My voice came out a little more tartly than I had intended.
"Yes, I'm sure you can," he said doubtful y.
"Look," I said, trying to keep my tone even, "you've managed to keep . . . them away from me so I could get some work done." The tables were too close together for me to include any more details. "I'm grateful for that. But this cafe is ful of humans. The only danger now would come from your drawing their attention. You're official y off duty."
Clairmont cocked his head in the direction of the cash register. "That man over there told his friend that you looked 'tasty.'" He was trying to make light of it, but his face darkened. I smothered a laugh.
"I don't think he's going to bite me," I said.
The vampire's skin took on a grayish hue.
"From what I understand of modern British slang, 'tasty' is a compliment, not a threat."
Clairmont continued to glower.
"If you don't like what you're hearing, stop listening in on other people's conversations," I offered, impatient with his male posturing.
"That's easier said than done," he pronounced, picking up a jar of Marmite.
A younger, slightly svelter version of Mary came up with an enormous brown stoneware teapot and two mugs. "Milk and sugar are on the table, Matthew," she said, eyeing me with curiosity.